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The pandemic has driven food trucks into neighborhoods and onto delivery apps

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The pandemic has changed how many businesses operate; among them, food trucks. And many have had to adjust and get creative after the pandemic sent office workers home and shut down festivals and crowded breweries. From member station WFAE in Charlotte, Nick de la Canal reports.

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NICK DE LA CANAL, BYLINE: A worker slices up meat on the grill inside a food truck selling gyros in Charlotte. It's almost noon - aka lunch hour - but no one's in line, and foot traffic is light. Manager Jay Wolde says ever since the office workers in the nearby towers went home last year, sales have been way down.

JAY WOLDE: I mean, we're losing - day shift alone - 2- to $300 a day.

DE LA CANAL: He says they're relying more on the weekend bar crowd these days, though even those lines are shorter than before. Wolde points down to the end of the block.

WOLDE: Our line used to be all the way down. Now it's like, probably it goes up on a night - Saturday night, goes up to probably there.

DE LA CANAL: You're pointing to maybe the no parking sign over here.

WOLDE: (Inaudible) right there.

DE LA CANAL: So that's about half the length almost, maybe less.

WOLDE: Way less. A lot less.

DE LA CANAL: His truck, which he calls the Halal Gyro Man cart, has a permit for this spot, and they don't want to leave. But Wolde says they realized early on they'd need a new way to reach customers. Their solution? Sign up for online ordering and delivery apps.

WOLDE: Right now, my main customers are relying on Uber and DoorDash. Those are my main - before, it used to be the walk-ins. Now, it's just over on the DoorDash.

DE LA CANAL: And he says the virtual orders have been enough to keep them afloat. That's just one way food truck drivers are adjusting. Before the pandemic, Greg Williams and Jamie Barnes used to park their gourmet french fry truck, called What the Fries, outside office towers and business parks. When the office workers shifted to work from home, Barnes says they followed them.

JAMIE BARNES: People weren't at work.

GREGORY WILLIAMS: Weren't at work.

BARNES: People were starting to work from home, so it just was a no-brainer to do neighborhoods. Everybody was home, so.

DE LA CANAL: They began driving out to the suburbs and parking near apartment complexes and neighborhood rec centers. And Williams says their number of daily lunchtime orders jumped from about 150 a day to more than 250.

WILLIAMS: I think people didn't want to travel.

BARNES: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: I mean, we were coming to them. We have good food. And I think it just picked up really well.

DE LA CANAL: He says they did especially well early in the pandemic when restaurants were closed and people were spending more time outdoors.

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DE LA CANAL: Still, many food truck drivers say they're ready for the return of festivals and other regular events, like this Food Truck Friday at Cabarrus Brewing Co. in Concord. A six-piece bluegrass band plays as families and couples amble through the brewery's parking lot, sipping beers and lining up for trucks selling tacos, seafood and doughnuts.

WILLIE WALTERS: Yes, ma'am.

(CROSSTALK)

DE LA CANAL: In one corner of the lot is Willie Walters. He cooks up fried chicken and Southern comfort food inside his truck, Sandra Lee's Country Kitchen.

WALTERS: Oh, this, like, triple your normal day (laughter).

DE LA CANAL: Walters has only been in the food truck biz for a year now. He used his federal stimulus money to get started. While the first few months were tough, he says business has gotten better as coronavirus restrictions have eased and more of these food truck-friendly events have returned.

WALTERS: We actually booked all the way up through about December - different neighborhoods, breweries. So actually, we sitting pretty good as long as the weather hold up. You know, if the weather don't bother us, we going to be good.

DE LA CANAL: And of course, that remains the biggest variable in all this. Because even if the pandemic clears up, a rainy day is still a rainy day.

For NPR News, I'm Nick de la Canal in Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT SONG, "EYES BE CLOSED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.