Utah food trucks — designed for takeout meals — suffer without events, but they are open for business

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Food truck operators in Utah find themselves in a precarious position during the coronavirus pandemic.

They are allowed — with some restrictions — to make and serve meals to customers. Yet state and local health officials have banned the gatherings and events the mobile businesses need to survive.

“We are at the cross section of the response,” said Taylor Harris, general manager of the Food Truck League, the Utah-based company that coordinates food truck events and catering across the Wasatch Front.

Last week, state health officials banned all dine-in eating at restaurants and bars to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Delivery and takeout are still allowed, and food trucks are the epitome of eating on the go.

To be successful, Harris said, they need to park in area with lots of foot traffic, which “isn’t happening” in this age of social distancing.

“Everything that the league had scheduled, all our events and caterings, were canceled,” Harris said, estimating that mobile food sales are down 90%.

Even events designed to showcase the mobile vendors — like Salt Lake City’s popular Food Truck Thursdays at the Gallivan Center plaza — have been postponed during the pandemic.

To survive, food trucks are using their social media accounts to let customers know where they are parked and to encourage online ordering and pickup. Most are offering special deals. For example, Jamaica’s Kitchen has a kids eat free special while Cupbop Korean BBQ has reduced its bowl prices to $7.50.

Cupbop owners are trying to remain positive during the ordeal, posting on Facebook that they have “become more grateful for the normal days” before the coronavirus and saying they believe the experience will make them “stronger than ever.”

Harris said the timing is especially difficult for food truck owners who don’t operate in the winter and live on their summer and fall earnings during the cold months. Many were looking forward to spring to build up their bank accounts.

Several owners have just decided to stay closed until the situation improves.

“We are so grateful to our community for all the kind words and support you have sent our way in the last week,” the co-owners of Salt Lake City’s Raclette Machine wrote on social media. But, “in the interest of public safety, we have decided to close until further notice.”

Food trucks have still been able to park at The Hub Food Truck Park, at 982 W. South Jordan Parkway. But the league, which opened the venue in 2018, had to close the building that offered inside seating.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Customers order from Jamaica's Kitchen Food Truck at the The Hub Food Truck Park in South Jordan, Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

Health officials, for now, see food trucks as a service that can be used — as long as guidelines are strictly followed.

“We don’t have major concerns with them,” said Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp.

Under the state and county health department orders, mobile food operations can continue to operate as long as customers maintain a 6-foot physical distance from one another while in line to order or waiting for food.

Rupp said health officials have encouraged businesses to place markers 6 feet apart to help with social distancing.

Mobile food operators also need to abide by a few other requirements, including:

• Encouraging touchless/online payments rather than cash.

• Sanitizing payment-processing devices between each transaction.

• Cashiering employees cannot be involved in food service at all.

• Prohibiting symptomatic employees from working.