Grand Rapids food trucks adjust to pandemic

Pizza Parliament instituted neighborhood nights, setting up in neighborhoods and texting customers when their orders were ready. Courtesy Pizza Parliament

Despite canceled concerts, festivals and events, a few of the city’s food trucks continue serving customers safely.

Food truck owners will be the first to admit adjustments to the COVID-19 prevention guidelines have not been easy. Due to city regulations, food trucks were forced to relocate from downtown Grand Rapids to outlying neighborhoods like Grandville or Kentwood.

“All of our events were canceled… we had to find alternative methods in order to operate … everything had to be adjusted,” said Lauren D’Angelo, owner of Patty Matters food truck and vice president of the Grand Rapids Food Truck Association.

Without being able to serve food in person, many food trucks operated impromptu carhops, bringing online and call-in orders to customers who wait in their cars. To add another challenge, recent food shortages have made costs unpredictable.

Due to these circumstances, many food trucks chose to halt operations when the pandemic started. One such food truck, Porkfat Slim’s BBQ, has not been operational for over two months due to high meat prices. El Caribe Food Truck just recently reopened with menu changes due to high meat prices. Still others, such as D&D’s Tacos, Fries and More, were forced to permanently close.

Despite setbacks, a few food trucks managed to remain open during the pandemic, observing strong sales as demand for takeout skyrocketed.

As concerts, festivals and events slowly evaporated in early March, Justin Gunnink, owner of Pizza Parliament, began brainstorming new business strategies for his food truck, which included a shift to a delivery model and hosting neighborhood nights around Grand Rapids, bringing pizzas right outside customers’ front doors.

Thanks to its convenient online ordering system and text updates, Gunnink said the neighborhood takeout nights were an instant success.

“After our first night, we had about a hundred requests from various neighborhoods,” he said.

Gunnink had to hire more employees to meet the demand, and his truck began “eclipsing festival numbers” in sales. With everyone tired of cooking and stuck at home, the pandemic created what Gunnink called the “perfect storm” for Pizza Parliament’s new model.

Other food trucks followed suit and opened their trucks for neighborhood nights. Ice Box Brand Ice Cream Truck asked to tag along with Pizza Parliament. Together, they created a block-party atmosphere for isolated neighbors at the height of social distancing. Although neighbors still couldn’t congregate and waited for a text before picking up their order, Pizza Parliament and Ice Box Ice Cream still brought some excitement to the stay-at-home monotony.

Even after the stay-at-home order is lifted, Gunnink said he plans to continue hosting neighborhood nights, adding he still will serve pizza at events, concerts and festivals on the weekends but anticipates continued neighborhood stops on weeknights.

Patty Matters was forced to set up in outlying neighborhoods like Grandville and Kentwood during the pandemic. Courtesy Patty Matters

Patty Matters, which specializes in gourmet burgers, fries, desserts and sodas, has been operational throughout the shutdown and year-round since 2015.

D’Angelo said that April was her best month this year despite it being during the height of the shutdown. When customers stopped visiting in person due to the virus, Patty Matters became a mobile to-go restaurant, stopping in various parking lots and neighborhoods to bring burgers to customers as they waited in their cars. At first, D’Angelo could barely keep up with all the orders.

“When 6 o’clock hit, our printer just kept going off, nearly 40 orders came in within two minutes,” she said. “We’ve definitely worked out the kinks, but it took a little time to figure it all out.”

D’Angelo said the absence of dine-in restaurant options contributed to her success.

“People were trying to find some sense of normalcy, and we were able to bring that to them,” she said.

Before the pandemic hit, food trucks often set up in Rosa Parks Circle, and D’Angelo said last month’s riot in downtown Grand Rapids was heartbreaking.

Along with several other food trucks, D’Angelo began a collection to help local restaurants facing damage. Despite the competitive nature of the foodservice industry, she said she still wanted to help damaged restaurants.

“Those are our neighbors,” D’Angelo said. “Whether they’ve fought us in the past or not, they’re still what makes downtown, downtown.”

D’Angelo said she strives to foster a similar sense of community among food trucks in Grand Rapids. Under her leadership, the GRFTA works to improve regulations and provide more opportunities for their member food trucks.

Even as restaurants begin opening their dining rooms, she said she doesn’t anticipate a decline in sales for food trucks but rather a shift from everyday dining to catered graduation parties, weddings and corporate events.

“The hope is to get regulations to change in the next couple weeks so we can start setting up in Grand Rapids again and supporting our local community,” she said.

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