As bars and restaurants switched to takeout operations in the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine, food trucks and breweries found it more difficult to pivot. Now that Maryland has entered the third phase of reopening its economy, these businesses still find themselves with unique challenges.

For food truck operators, lucrative daytime spots remain elusive, while breweries struggle with changes to their distribution channels.

Hysteria Brewing Company’s canning line. Photo by Emily Calkins.

“We’ve seen a drop-off in bookings because a lot of people are still working from home, so trucks are not visiting dense office parks like they used to,” said Dave Pulford, a Fulton resident and co-founder of Maryland Best Food Trucks, the largest food truck booking and ordering platform in the United States.

He and partner Willy Dely manage scheduling for more than 150 food trucks in Maryland.

“Operators now realize that they have other options, but they have to make a greater effort to take advantage of them,” Pulford said. “They’re doing more small jobs and more catering jobs than usual.”

Lunch crowds used to provide the most reliable business for mobile food vendors but since the pandemic many have begun concentrating on dinnertime sales between 4 and 8 p.m.

“They’ve started going to more neighborhoods and housing developments now because that’s where the people are,” Pulford said.

The cancellation of sporting events and concerts has also dealt mobile vendors a major blow.

“Weddings are starting to push back up though,” Pulford said. “The way things are going with the reopening, many of our trucks might be back to something resembling normal operations by November or December but that’s usually when they’re thinking about ceasing operations for the winter months.”

Disrupted supply chains have hurt both food truck vendors and breweries but for different reasons.

“There is a massive can shortage right now. No one has them,” said Tyler Kreis, sales director for Hysteria Brewing Co. in Columbia. “Even Coca Cola has streamlined what products they’re offering in cans. It’s really frightening right now. We’re scrambling to find cans every week.”

That’s not a good situation to be in when the continued regulation of restaurant and bar capacity means that these venues are not dispensing their normal volumes of beer.

“Literally almost every drop of beer we’re making has been canned instead of kegged,” Kreis said.

To help boost its canned beer sales volume, Hysteria turned to BierMi, a smart phone app that connects consumers directly to breweries offering either curbside pickup or delivery.

Brendan O’Leary, co-founder of True Respite Brewing Co. in Rockville, joined forces with Brian O’Connor, a web developer who supports True Respite’s software needs, to create the app in March when they realized how much their business would suffer during lockdown.

Since the app launched, more than 200 breweries across the country have started using it.

Other local breweries using the platform are Reckless Ale Works, Jailbreak Brewing Co., and Black Flag Brewing Co. in Howard County, Crooked Crab Brewing Co. in Anne Arundel County and Heavy Seas Brewing Co. in Baltimore County.

“We were fortunate enough to have already purchased a canning line,” Kreis said. “Not every brewery has one, and that has 10,000 percent been our saving grace.”

On the food truck side, most vendors work with smaller food suppliers and faced ingredient shortages early in the season.

“Restaurant Depot actually opened their doors to the public during lockdown and those who usually buy from Costco or BJ’s Wholesale Club found their stores picked clean,” Pulford said. “Things like serving gloves or disinfectants still aren’t available.”

In an unlikely turn of events, particularly after mobile food vendors lost a lawsuit earlier this year challenging their prohibition from operating within 300 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, some food truck owners have joined the other side, at least for the time being.

“Joey Vanoni, who had the Pizza di Joey truck, opened a restaurant in the Cross Street Market in Baltimore,” Pulford said.

Others haven’t been so lucky. The Happy Crabster food truck was among those that decided to suspend operations in March. Although the owners announced their intention to return when it was safe to do so, the owners did not respond to a request for comment from The Business Monthly.

“We can’t give an exact number in terms of how many trucks suspended operations or went out of business entirely, but it happened,” Pulford said. “Some operators decided to concentrate on other aspects of their business like catering or prepackaging food for pickup rather than take a health or business risk with their truck.”

There were also instances of some catering or small food service establishments getting into food truck service to supplement their normal business, he added.

“The people in this business are creative by nature and they’ve been using that to their advantage,” Pulford said.

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | October 2020 Issue