Rising gas and food prices trouble NJ food trucks slowed by COVID
The price of a gallon of regular gasoline in New Jersey has settled into the $4.20 range after its recent spike, holding steady at about 55 cents higher than about a month ago.
Diesel is even higher, according to AAA, at well over $5 a gallon, and both could be ominous indicators as the weather warms up for the Garden State's food trucks, which rely on both fuels — for transportation and on-site generators.
But Jon Hepner, president of the New Jersey Food Truck Association and owner of Aroy-D, the Thai Elephant, both a food truck and a restaurant in Verona, said while that's concerning, gas is not a food truck's primary expense.
"Beef prices went through the roof about a year ago, and I used to charge the same thing for beef and chicken, but I couldn't do that anymore," he said. "In general, our costs are probably about 20% higher than what they were, let's just say, a year ago."
Hepner said beside rising prices, which inevitably get passed down to consumers, the COVID-19 pandemic not only put many New Jersey food trucks out of business, but also caused a paradigm shift in what had been their standard operating procedure since the mobile restaurants exploded in popularity about a decade ago.
The idea of "street vending," as in the traditional trucks one might think of on the street corners of New York or Los Angeles, is fading away at least in the Garden State, where business practically shuts down from November through March.
Now, Hepner said, food truck owners are getting wise — and booking engagements where they know they'll make money.
"It was much more of a catered thing, where I'd bring my truck in — 'I will pay you X amount of dollars to have your truck there and just feed these people,'" he said, drawing on personal experience. "We're not doing as much street vending as we used to, almost none for that matter. It's mostly we take the truck out to offices or catered things."
The next trend may be food trucks concentrated at apartment buildings or offices, according to Hepner, but the problem there is that many offices remain relatively empty since clearing out in March 2020.
In fact, he said his business was supposed to open a pop-up location in Jersey City in May of that year, and got as far as building out a kitchen, but the opening has never happened.
Hepner knows part of the appeal of food trucks is that they are supposed to offer quality food at affordable prices. He still believes trucks in New Jersey can do that this spring and summer, whether it be at festivals, wedding receptions, or office parties ... just perhaps not as cheaply as they once did.