“At the end of the day, we want to have a future, but if we keep progressing the way we are doing, we won’t,” she said.
Navigating a bumpy road
The entire restaurant industry has been hit hard by soaring labor and material costs and supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, but food truck operations face unique challenges in the current economic climate. As mobile operations, they literally run on gas. And most customers expect affordable rates.
Food truck owners have little control over the price of gasoline, which last week sold for an average of $4.23 a gallon in metro Atlanta, down 13 cents from the previous week and 30 cents less than a month ago. But, there are adjustments mobile operators can make – from where they travel to what they put on the menu and how much they charge for it – that affect the bottom line.
At the start of the pandemic, many food trucks lost a core clientele overnight: office workers. According to Doug Marranci, COO at Kitchen Concept PREP, the trucks that have transitioned to selling in apartment complexes and hosting small private events have “done very well.” Of the 89 food trucks that rent commissary kitchen space from PREP, only three went out of business during the pandemic, Marranci said.
“Especially during the pandemic, people have gotten used to convenience…They’ve gotten used to having food trucks in their neighborhoods,” Marranci said. “The good thing about this year is that the demand for people who want or think they want to (eat at) food trucks is exponential.”
Manny Perez, 29, said he would rather spend money on food trucks than big chains to support local businesses. The Chamblee resident dined “very often” at food trucks during the pandemic. He would be willing to spend a few more dollars on food trucks since “I understand their journey, their expenses”.
However, Perez expects to pay a few dollars less at a food truck than at a restaurant. The same goes for Payton Rutledge, 27, who likes to support local vendors and would pay a dollar or two more for food trucks considering inflation.
“I would expect to pay more in a restaurant just because you have to pay more staff, tip waitresses, get drinks,” she said.
Figuring out how much they can raise menu prices to offset the cost of food has been a balancing act for food truck operators.
Ashley Carlton, president of Not As Famous Cookie Company, Atlanta’s first gourmet cookie truck, said the “ridiculously high” cost of ingredients, including flour, sugar and eggs, forced him to go up prices twice in the last six months and potentially a third time soon. He said while some customers are willing to pay the 18% price increase, others have cut spending. on cookies.
“Those who know our product and have been experimenting with it for a while are always willing to pay according to (the) increase,” Carlton said. “New customers can move on until they try them or hear others talk about their love for cookies.”
Throughout the pandemic, Sandy Williams of Superior Vegan said she’s tried to keep prices low for comfort foods like vegan cheesesteaks. But with the cost of vegetables, grains and seasonings now double what they were before the pandemic, she had no recourse but to raise prices a few months ago.
According to Tony Harrison, president of the Food Truck Association of Georgia (FTAG) and owner of Baltimore Crab Cake Company with a food truck in Atlanta, food trucks have faced increases in food costs between 30 and 100 percent without increasing costs. menu costs of this amount.
“If the price of wings goes up 50%, you can’t increase your price 50% because people will stop coming,” Harrison said. “Our margins are eroding right now, and it’s very difficult to do business.”
To navigate a fluctuating economy, Antoine Smith of the SGC Chicken & Seafood food truck makes weekly adjustments to his southern and New Orleans-inspired menu. With rising propane prices, he’s added dishes like grilled shrimp and lamb chops to cut down on items that need deep frying. And he swapped expensive fries toppings like lobster with chicken to keep the dish affordable while making a profit.
Jace Whitsey, who runs Let’s Taco Bout It, didn’t raise prices much or change the menu much, even though a box of chicken breasts doubled from $60 to $121. Instead, he added a source of income by selling homemade sauces to wider markets. Despite the lack of answers about how the economy is changing, customers have made a noticeably greater effort to patronize the truck during this tough time, Whitsey said.
“When people started to understand that we weren’t a Taco Bell or that we didn’t do anything together, but that we put time and effort into every taco we made, people really seem to appreciate that a lot more now. “, did he declare.
Hope for the future
Licensing is a cost of doing business that has long curtailed food truck profits. Food trucks must obtain a mobile food service unit license from the board of health in each county in which they operate. To obtain a permit, food trucks must pass a health inspection, which costs thousands of dollars and hours of labor. Permit costs range between $200 and $600, not including plan review fees, Harrison said.
In March, the Georgia legislature passed HB 1443, which would allow food trucks to sell food anywhere in the state with a single permit and with faster verification procedures for inspections. The bill, which Governor Kemp signed in May, will enter into force on January 1, 2023.
“A lot of (food trucks) are just a one man, one woman show. They don’t have accountants, they don’t have lawyers, they’re just trying to figure it all out for themselves,” said Tony West, assistant state director for Americans for Prosperity Georgia, who worked with Harrison. of the FTAG to lobby for the adoption of the bill. “Being able for them to get their annual license once to complete that process and have it honored everywhere else in the state is really a big deal.”
But with January 1 five months away and inflation still a daily reality, food truck owners are putting some projects on hold. Carlton plans to “wait and see how it all goes” before opening another Not As Famous Cookie Company brick-and-mortar location.
Whitsey said: “I had a plan with my accountant where we look at it and by September if things change I’m going to have to change my prices… because there wouldn’t be enough money to keep everything works if I didn’t.
For his part, Marranci is optimistic that relief is near. Based on conversations with distributors, he predicts that if food trucks can hold out until September with slightly higher prices, all will be well.
“We’re painfully aware of what people have in the bank, but it’s not far around the corner that some of those prices will start to come down,” Marranci said.
Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining newsletter
Read more stories like this by like Atlanta Restaurant Scene on FacebookNext @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.