How Cleveland’s food trucks are trying to stay afloat amid social distancing and dining room shut downs in Ohio

Updated: Mar. 23, 2020 at 1:28 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Food truck owners and operators rely on crowds, but with the social distancing guidelines and a stay at home order in place, their futures are in jeopardy.

“Currently my calendar has been wiped out through May. The industry in general is at a standstill,” said Dave Southerington, owner of Sweet! The Mobile Cupcakery.

He had five college or school events on his calendar, all of which were canceled.

“I’ll survive but I know that there will be trucks that won’t make it through to the other side. I hope I’m wrong. The uncertainty is probably the hardest part,” he said.

Southerington, a member of the Northeast Ohio Food Truck Association, said now would be the time that most trucks would start to gear up, but he questions what, if anything, they’d be gearing up for.

“The one saving grace that food trucks have is much lower overhead. Most aren’t paying rent and haven’t yet brought their seasonal staff on board. But, we work nonstop through the warm months to make it through the cold months,” he said.

Some restaurants are looking into buying food trucks as a option to generate some type of sales when their dining rooms are empty and pick-up orders aren’t cutting it.

Owners of Oak & Embers Taverns are looking into utilizing their food truck to keep afloat...
Owners of Oak & Embers Taverns are looking into utilizing their food truck to keep afloat during social distancing.(Oak & Embers)

“We were thinking about using our trailer. But we are trying to figure out where to go. We might just park it outside our brick and mortar for easy walk up,” said Marc Garofoli, owner of Oak & Embers Taverns in Hudson, Orange Village and Chesterland.

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“It’s probably $30,000 of expenses just to remain open for a month. And that’s with us laying off 90% of our staff. To break even we would need to sell $1,000 of food per day. We are averaging about $220. And that includes some pretty large ‘angel orders’ from friends,” said Managing Partner Scott Phillips Jr.

He said they were exploring the idea of buying a food truck to help make ends meet.

But, he was disappointed to discover that the cheapest ones, which usually run $12,000-$20,00, are now listed for roughly $30,000.

“Many of them were upwards of $80,000-$100,000. Several of the listings were posted within seven days of when I was shopping, indicating that they were taking advantage of the opportunity. I can’t blame them. It’s capitalism,” he said.

Gary Mazurowski, owner and operator of Cleveland Custom Food Trucks, said if someone wanted one now it would likely cost around $60,000 with a $10,000 truck, and turnaround time would be around six to eight weeks.

Some food trucks who are already in operation are managing.

“We have pre-ordering and running the food out to the cars. It has been working great,” said Grace Olszewski, of OL’Chefski’s BBQ., who’s been working this way for three weeks.

Chef Jason Olszewski of OL'Chefskis food truck prepares food during social distancing
Chef Jason Olszewski of OL'Chefskis food truck prepares food during social distancing(Grace Olszewski)

Others, like SWAT Smoked BBQ & Catering, have decided to “call it” and suspend operations for the time being.

“We have the opportunity to set up daily at a local grocery store but we have to respectfully decline for many reasons. We cannot police social distances, crowds, risking myself or employees getting the virus with too much public contact,” said Owner Dan Molnar.

Events they’ve booked have been canceling on a daily basis all the way up to June dates.

“My food trucks are the only income for my family, with zero income coming in I’m uncertain if we’ll be able to survive this. Walnut Wednesday’s have been postponed, we operate at Blossom for all the concerts and that’s in the air right now, private events are canceling rapidly,” Molnar said.

He believes that in the days to come things will get worse, and he hopes the government provides some relief for small businesses besides a SBA loan.

“Now we are going to focus on catering individual meals in increments of 25 to grocery stores, hospitals, and any other essential open businesses,” Molnar said.

"It’s going to be grim for a while but when things get back to normal we’ll hit the ground running, Southerington said.