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In Our Push to Save Restaurants, Where Do Food Trucks Stand?



Los Angeles doesn’t think about restaurants the way that many other American cities think about restaurants. LA’s street food culture, whether that comes in the form of underground Instagram projects, sidewalk vendors, or mobile food trucks, has always influenced eating here. Angelenos don’t need a dining room (or a roof) to enjoy a great meal. Yet much of the current conversation about “saving restaurants” during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic — on this site, and just about everywhere else online — seems to hover around physical, sit-down restaurants only.

So after a summer in which street vendors weren’t granted initial access to the mayor’s highly touted Al Fresco program and a fall spent wondering when diners can once again eat a meal indoors in LA County (or if they even should), it’s time to focus on another important question:

What’s happening with food trucks, right now?

More than a decade on from the initial food truck boom of the late aughts, trucks have become less of a fad and more of a stepping stone for eager entrepreneurs to kickstart a new career. But now the pandemic has thrown that process off course. So who is making it, if anyone, and what does the future hold for those trucks sticking it out through lockdowns, curfews, and an international public health crisis?

As it turns out, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some truck owners, frankly, are doing better than they could have imagined, relying on new systems and an always-outdoors, always-innovating mobile mentality to turn the quarantine into an advantage. Others are struggling mightily, losing once-precious parking spots as businesses and office parks close unexpectedly and the vital flow of foot traffic becomes an almost imperceptible trickle.

A Samoan chef crosses his arms inside of a kitchen.
BJ Yandall of Fiyahnesian
Clay Larsen

“People have no idea how hard it is for me to keep this up, to be financially stable,” says Anthony Suggs of Antidote Eats, “and to dodge death from the police.” Suggs, a Black Long Beach native, feels that his truck — and his story — have been thrust into the greater current cultural conversation right now, in part thanks to a life-changing LA Times piece written about him earlier this summer. From a marijuana-related stint in prison to couch-surfing while scraping together enough cash for his truck, the former rapper’s own journey has mirrored this tumultuous year in America, down to the economic uncertainty and a justified fear of the police.

“My story, mixed with people in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, mixed with the coronavirus, George Floyd, all of these African Americans being murdered — I’m the epitome of that,” says Suggs. “I’m that African American just trying to do business.”

Right now, Antidote Eats pulls up a few times a week at various stops, including recently at LA Ale Works in Hawthorne for an outdoor screening of a Dodgers World Series game. Suggs works the truck with his girlfriend and her mother, who is currently being treated for cancer. Together they’re trying to make it work, splitting the money where they can and putting just enough into the truck to make it to the next stop, to cook the next meal. They don’t always see the return.

“I’ve been out here with this truck for eight months,” says Suggs, noting the ebbs and flows that come with life as a vendor on the streets. The Times story brought two-hour lines for days afterwards, and events with actor Michael B. Jordan have helped to boost the Antidote Eats’ profile, but that’s far from the daily norm. “I’ve pulled up in Hollywood, where there’s supposed to be people going by all day, and made no money. Maybe $25, sitting in the heat for four hours.”

Still, every day presents the tantalizing possibility of making a living wage. The truck’s Instagram page is up to nearly 15,000 followers, and occasional catering gigs are helping to even out the unsure waters. Suggs feels there’s no other path but forward. “Just to have the truck open, and to know that I can profit with it, and there’s so much potential in it, it’s like … you’re numb to the problems,” he says. “If I lose everything, so be it. I’ve already lost it all before.”

Kyle Lambert understands the need to practice patience inside a food truck. He started out selling pizza slices from a commissary kitchen on Fairfax under the name Bootleg Pizza before moving into a pre-pandemic food truck. Now he says his business model has “completely shifted,” moving away from walk-up customers and exclusively toward preorders. It’s a complicated system, one the truck isn’t really built for.

“It started because nobody was on the street,” Lambert says as he prepares for an evening of orders while parked outside of Glendale Tap, “and because we needed to practice social distancing. We couldn’t have everyone showing up at the same time.” The move to selling whole pies in advance has rankled some customers who can’t secure slots fast enough, or who see the rig and think it’s possible to just grab a bite and go. “I completely understand their frustration,” Lambert says. “I probably wouldn’t deal with it either.”

There isn’t much of an alternative right now, considering the bars and breweries that Bootleg used to frequent have largely gone dormant, deemed especially dangerous gathering points for passing the coronavirus around. Leaving them behind means little in the way of guaranteed nightly sales for a truck like Bootleg, at least without resorting to the preorder system. “Who knows when they’re going to come back,” says Lambert. And then there is the truck itself, which can be finicky.

“It fucking sucks” doing everything on a truck, Lambert says flatly. With the rise of delivery-only restaurants, some young entrepreneurs are finding that commissary kitchen space is at a crowded premium. Lambert and his small crew try to stick to themselves as much as possible, though pushing too much power through the rig’s aging electrical system is causing long-term wear and tear. “There’s just constant problems. Then again, that’s every food truck.”

It’s been an up-and-down ride for Omayra Dakis and her Triple Threat Truck, too. The Puerto Rican rolling restaurant helped Dakis land an appearance on Guy Fieri’s television show Guy’s Grocery Games, but the day-to-day business of parking, cooking, and selling food still presents its challenges. “We had a really busy summer [in 2019],” Dakis says, but this year’s sales are off by at least 20 percent. “Our saving grace has been our preorder system. Up until two months ago, we were getting basically no more walk ups.”

Much like Bootleg, the Triple Threat Truck was forced to transition away from its natural selling environment — the sidewalk — to digital preorders, which can help with planning and inventory, but comes at the cost of visibility. So in exchange, Dikas and her team have amped up their social media presence, keeping customers engaged with new menu items like the mofongleta, a wild three-meat burrito concoction that used smashed and fried plantains as a wrap. “It’s been pivotal,” Dakis says. “We’re constantly posting and updating our followers to keep their attention.”

Mofongo, tripleta, and sodas, other dishes from Triple Threat Truck
Food from the Triple Threat Truck
Wonho Frank Lee

Social media has also helped the truck pull in new fans from further away, particularly when she publicly came out against using all Goya products after the company’s founder praised President Trump. New fans from Murrieta to Bakersfield started following along via Instagram, asking when they could sample her mofongo or loaded fries.

Dakis has found that these new one-off stops well outside of LA proper do surprisingly well for the truck, because those customers enjoy trying the new food and knowing they can order in advance. In the before times, most LA-based trucks would only make the long haul out to, say, the Inland Empire as part of a festival or evening collection of food trucks, and customers would be forced to wait in long lines and hope the menu wasn’t sold out before they made it to the front. “Now there’s that kinship” with her customers, Dakis says. “It’s like ‘Oh, that Puerto Rican truck is in town, let’s go hit them up.’ We’re so thankful to be able to bring that comfort to them.”

The thought now, even with slumped sales, is to expand as a way to grow that base of regionally loyal customers. “There’s constantly requests for us in other areas,” Dakis says. “So we’re asking ourselves, is this the time for growth? We wanted to move into a brick and mortar, but that’s gone now with everything that’s going on. So what do we do? Do we get a new truck, or wait this out?”

Perhaps the only person not stressing the current moment is BJ Yandall, the endlessly happy owner of longtime Hawaiian-Mexican pop-up Fiyahnesian, which operates across the southern Harbor region of LA County. “I’m really blessed,” Yandall says. “Ever since my food truck, business has been insane.” Yandall and his young family, all of whom feature prominently on Fiyahnesian’s colorful Instagram page, were initially uncertain about moving from their at-home garage cooking setup to take on the fees and uncertainty of a food truck. But with the deepening of the pandemic and crowds of locals congregating at their home — occasionally drawing the ire of neighbors — Yandall made the decision in June to go mobile. Almost overnight, his business exploded.

Triple Threat Truck parked on the street in LA.
The Triple Threat Truck
Wonho Frank Lee

That first night, on August 8, a two-hour line snaked through the Carson Christian Center parking lot, Yandall says. There were many familiar faces from the family’s close-knit Pacific Islander community and even more first-timers. “Some of the rappers who like my food, they wouldn’t come when it was in my garage,” says Yandall. “They would just send their bodyguards and stuff, because they’re all Samoan guys.” He laughs. “I know everybody, man.”

It’s that continued community that is keeping Fiyahnesian not just afloat, but sailing. Yandall and the crew recently completed a round of small private events in San Diego County, and they park three to four days a week for evening service in Carson. Plans are in place to add staff and expand into longer hours, including lunch, to help spread the enduring lines out a little bit.

For now, Yandall simply says he’s fortunate to be one of the few trucks making it work during all this uncertainty. Truth be told, he admits, the family had planned to open a restaurant space just before things went sideways. Now the truck has expanded his reach while still letting him interact with his community and continue to feed his family. “I thank God, man,” he says. “I’m just so blessed.”


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The Eater Guide on How to Help During the Crisis



Not all that long ago it seemed like if the pandemic weren’t exactly over by now, then at least the worst of it would be. But the summer didn’t make things any simpler. Cases continued to spread, and fires and hurricanes ravaged the West and Gulf Coast. As the weather turned colder, more states began allowing indoor activities and face-to-face school. As a result, the virus appears to be surging once more. It is increasingly clear that not only will thousands more Americans likely die as a direct result of COVID-19 by the end of 2020, but the mass misery of the economic devastation it has unleashed — suffering disproportionately endured by Black and Latinx communities — will not lift anytime soon. 

Benefits like the federal $600 a week unemployment expansion ran out or contracted for more than 25 million Americans in July and the federal government has failed to agree on the terms of a new aid package. Organizations that provide food and housing assistance to low-income people across the country, already strained by the last several months of the pandemic and the government’s appallingly incompetent — and at times malevolent — response, are scrambling to meet a tidal wave of need. As roughly 40 percent of restaurants on the brink of closing forever, programs that aid people in the food industry are also seeking further support so they can continue to provide assistance to worker who remain unemployed or underemployed. Groups representing Indigenous communities, undocumented immigrants, farmworkers, and people of color are also mobilizing to get assistance to marginalized people and lay a foundation for a more resilient food system — because while it’s an extraordinary time of need, it’s also not new. 

Hunger and poverty have always been the U.S.’s most shameful open secrets. Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, as of 2018 more than 13 percent of people in the U.S. lived below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau, while a full 78 percent of U.S. workers lived paycheck to paycheck. The pandemic and its economic fallout have put those statistics into ever starker relief, as the nation’s working class and its poorest residents have faced the largest health burden from the virus. Several studies have estimated that pandemic-related job losses and increased food costs have roughly doubled food insecurity in the U.S., and No Kid Hungry estimates that one quarter of children around the country could face food insecurity in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus. 

In this guide, Eater has identified a range of programs, organizations, and charities fighting hunger, developing sustainable food networks, and providing support to the roughly 31 million people who are unemployed or are working less than they’d like to be due to this global medical disaster. These are places that are stepping in to do work in their communities where governments and elected officials have left people behind. Collected here are opportunities for giving and volunteering in and around the United States and its territories, at both the national and the local level, as well as in the U.K. Editors have done their best to vet the charities included here, but it’s always important to make sure when you give money or time that the organization you’re supporting aligns with your values and has a transparent, proven track record. If you only have time or resources to give, give it, but monetary donations — especially those offered over an extended period — can be even more impactful because charities tend to know where the greatest need is. If you’ve chosen a group and aren’t sure what’s the best way to help, it’s worth reaching out and asking.


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Trump Teases an ‘EPIC’ Election Night Party at His D.C. Hotel Despite Capacity Limits



Despite D.C.’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, President Donald Trump’s campaign has teased plans to host a party for election night on Tuesday, November 3, at the Trump International Hotel downtown. Fundraising emails from Donald Trump Jr. include details on a “sweepstakes” to fly a supporter to D.C. for a party described in all-caps as “EPIC,” “ELECTRIC,” and “INCREDIBLE.”

Under D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening restrictions, mass gatherings are capped at a maximum capacity of 50 people. Restaurants are still limited to half-capacity seating with no standing and no countertop service from bartenders. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says she wasn’t aware of plans for the party until Monday, October 26, Washingtonian reports.

The location of the election night party is unclear, but the opulent hotel has multiple ballrooms and event spaces. The hotel includes a location of celebrity chef David Burke’s BLT Prime steakhouse. Lobby-level bar Benjamin serves $23 glasses of sangria and $120 seafood towers. Nearby, more affordable pub Harry’s has already seen pro-Trump crowds openly flouting mask requirements and other protocols meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Trump has consistently downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. After he survived a case, Trump told Americans, “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

On election night four years ago, the recently opened hotel was the site of an impromptu and raucous gathering for supporters watching the numbers roll in on large TVs framing its gold bar. The controversial Pennsylvania Avenue hotel near the White House has been sold out for weeks on and around Election Day at rates going for $1,200 a night, the Associated Press reports.

The fine print in the sweepstakes notes the campaign can move the date of the trip and the location of the hotel stay at its discretion. The prize also includes a photo op with Trump. The supposedly randomly chosen winner, who is subject to a background check, will be responsible for all ground transportation, meals, and all other expenses during the duration of the trip.


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Eater Staffers Pick Their Favorite Instant Pot Recipes



Now that we are over the sourdough-and-regrowing-scallions part of the pandemic, but in no way over the actual pandemic, we must prepare for The Hunkering. Every winter is a time for stews, roasts, and hearty pasta bakes, but this winter it feels extra important, both because most of us are going to be indoors way more than any previous season, and have completely lost the energy to do anything but throw a bunch of stuff in a pot. Which obviously means it’s time to break out the Instant Pots.

A few years ago it seemed like electric multicookers, especially the Instant Pot, may have just been a fad. But the fact that in one appliance you can cook anything from soup to pudding to bread makes it pretty ideal for cooking during quarantine fatigue. Eater’s staffers rounded up our favorite go-to Instant Pot recipes, perfect for the many nights when you’re in the mood for something delicious, but you know, wanting to do as little as possible to make it happen. And as Eater Dallas and Eater Houston editor Amy McCarthy noted, you could always go with “just some fucking chicken breasts,” and let the machine do the rest.

Beef barley soup: This is the first that comes to mind. It’s basically a textbook version of this classic soup, and perfect for chilly weather. It’s low-lift, reasonably quick to put together, and freezes well. — Missy Frederick, cities director

Dakbokkeumtang: I make this recipe when I’m craving a savory chicken dish with the volume turned up. All that delicious flavor comes from the sauce. It’s a perfect balance of sweet and spicy from gochujang and sugar. Doenjang and oyster sauce adds another layer of depth. Typically to make this Korean comfort dish, you would need to watch over the pot, making sure that the chicken pieces are soaking up the sauce. But everything is done in the Instant Pot, so the result is fall-off-the-bone, tender chicken with potatoes that just break apart with no effort at all. Also, who doesn’t love a dump-everything-and-press-the-button recipe?! — James Park, social media manager

Mac and cheese: I make this one once a week when I’m lazy and cooking sounds hard. I use whatever cheese is in the fridge, add a little brown mustard to the mix, and usually skip the milk or add it at the very end. Would suggest you grate the mozzarella or it becomes a blob. — Brenna Houck, editor at Eater Detroit

Chinese poached whole chicken: Basically, I get a whole chicken every week, and I got tired of roasting it. This recipe is a really easy — not entirely foolproof, but a good enough way to poach a chicken whole in about 40 to 50 minutes, with not too much work on my part. You can use it specifically as white-cut chicken over rice with, say, a ginger scallion sauce, but just as often I pull the meat off the carcass and use it for meals throughout the week. Two caveats: You really do need an instant-read thermometer to tell when it’s done, and I find it’s much better to salt the chicken 24 hours in advance (I use the method in Salt Fat Acid Heat), so it has enough taste. And after poaching the chicken and pulling off the meat, I often toss the carcass right back into its cooking liquid, cook it on manual for another 60 minutes, and end up with a bunch of chicken stock. — Meghan McCarron, special correspondent

Kosha mangsho: This is a traditional Bengali goat or lamb stew in a heavily spiced, yogurt gravy, and it’s intensely rich and comforting. This recipe uses a pressure cooker to save time, but on the offchance you landed on this page and don’t have an Instant Pot or the like, you can still just simmer it in a large pot. — Jaya Saxena, staff writer

Lemongrass coconut chicken: The sauce is unbelievably tasty for just a few ingredients and it comes together so quickly. The labor to flavor ratio makes it one of my go-tos when I get bored with cooking or can’t be bothered to put in much effort. It’s also great over rice or any other grain. — Brittanie Shey, Eater Houston and Eater Dallas associate editor

Basic chicken noodle soup: I make a basic chicken noodle soup in the Instant Pot probably every week in the winter: The base recipe is two chicken breasts, a carton and a half of broth, a few cups (I eyeball it) roughly chopped diced celery, carrot, and onion, and whatever spices you want. Cook everything together on high pressure for 25 mins. You can quick-release the pressure and remove the chicken breasts, and shred them — while you’re shredding, set the pot’s saute function so the broth remains boiling and add egg noodles. Once the noodles are cooked, dump the shredded chicken back in and you’re done! This is perfect because frozen chicken works just as well (and at the same cook time), and you can experiment with any leafy greens at the end (throw them in when you add the noodles) and any noodle types you want. — Erin DeJesus, lead editor, Eater.com

Pork chile verde: This recipe is very good; I found it last year when I had a truckload of tomatillos from my garden. It is a great comfort food and works well as stew or tacos. — Brenna Houck, Editor at Eater Detroit


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