Park located at South First Street and Dittmar Road, said of all the food truck owners he has met while running the space for trucks, about a third seem to be aiming to open a brick-and-mortar location. Jae Kim, owner of Chi’Lantro, a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant that has become an Austin chain, started in a food truck. Kim maxed out his credit cards and cashed in his personal savings to aord the truck setup in 2010. For about $500 a month, he rented space at Second Street and Congress Avenue. While Kim acknowledged that rising rent prices are squeezing food trucks owners’ budgets, he said having a prime location allowed him to run lunch services earning around $2,000 a day. Now the owner of eight Austin-area brick-and-mortars, Kim said the cost of establishing a restaurant is around $100,000 if the space is already set up as a kitchen. It can cost ve times as much if the space needs to be completely reworked. Kim said that price was prohibitive to him when he started a business. “When I rst started, I was in my mid-twenties; I didn’t have any experience working in a restaurant so that people would give me money,” Kim said. Building community Francesca Beharry, Romeo’s cousin, works at Shirley’s Trini Cuisine in the Thicket several days a week. She said the eect the business has had has brought her to tears. “It hits home for a lot of people because they’re fromTrinidad and you can see it in their face,” Beharry said. “Older people want to tell you about their life in Trinidad. And some people haven’t had this food in 10 or 15 years, and I’m in here like, should I cry?” Romeo moved to Austin in 1996 as a teenager from Trinidad and Tobago when her father got a local job in the oil industry. Even as shemade friends, she said she still felt like an outsider. In her early twenties as a single mother, Romeo said she went into nance to support her family. When injuries froma car accident interrupted herwork life for a year, she transitioned into business consulting. Then the pandemic hit, wiping out most of her clientele who, as restaurant owners, could not aord nonessential services. Romeo’s mom suggested she go back to two of her passions: bringing Caribbean culture toAustinand cooking.
“We’re going to bring Carnival to Austin and do all these great things,” Romeo said. “I used to always say, ‘It’s going to start with our food.’” Romeo opened Shirley’s Trini Cuisine, named for her Trinidadian grandmother. She sold out in two hours. Romeo said she has found a community in Austin through her food truck. “I have customers who are like friends now because they come every week just to have a sense of self,” Romeo said. “You come to my truck and you can hear our music playing— it’s like a piece of home.” The pandemic and rising rent Just a few months after the coronavirus hit the U.S., Chi’Lantro owner Kim remembers turning to his wife and saying, “‘Hey, I think I’mgoing to go bankrupt. Just letting you know.’” In the rst months of the pandemic, his revenue declined by 80%. Kim decided to temporarily close two of his eight locations, a food trailer on Congress Avenue and a downtown location at 3030 Colorado St., which have not yet reopened. He told hismanagers that even if the business went under, he would have enough money to pay all employees for six months before he went broke. Kim said food trucks had a particular advantage in the pandemic. Romeo agreed. “Food trucks ourished in the pandemic because people were stuck in the house; they were tired of cooking,” Romeo said. She said business has been up and down, with the popularity of movements to support local businesses, damages caused by the February freeze and people returning to work. Diaz said business has boomed for
COURESTY HAPPY LOBSTER
“FOOD TRUCKS ARE SUCHA STAPLE INAUSTIN. IF IT EVER CAME TOAPOINTWHERE RENTWAS REALLY STARTING TO THREATEN THE INDUSTRY INAUSTIN, THEREWOULDBE CHANGES." ALEX ROBINSON, HAPPY LOBSTER OWNER
the last year. He did well enough in the pandemic that he is set to build an outdoor-indoor bar that will bring the rst brick-and-mortar element to the Thicket food truck park. “I feel like the pandemic helped our business grow,” Diaz said. “Being outside is a lot safer, and I think people understood that.” Austin Chamber of Commerce data shows in the rst quarter of 2020 there were 142 food trucks with 590 employees. During the next quarter, there were two more food trucks, but about 27% fewer people employed by the industry. Full-service restaurants in Austin lost about 55% of their workforce, according to chamber data. Food trucks also recovered in a way restaurants did not. By the rst quarter of 2021, the number of food trucks grew to 161 and the number of people employed rose to 638, higher than the pre-pandemic baseline. Full-service restaurants, on the other hand, hovered around 77% of the workforce seen prior to COVID- 19’s spread, per chamber data.
Despite it helping so many enter the food scene, food truck ownership is not without its challenges. Both food trucks and restaurant owners are facing rising rents. Kim said the last time he checked the rent for his original parking spot at Second Street and Congress Avenue, rent had gone up to more than $2,000 monthly, over four times what he paid in 2010. “These parking lots [that] we need to park in Austin, they’re prime real estate,” Robinson said. Adding he is concerned on rising rents will eect food truck owners. Robinson said he also believes the Austin that the community will rally to support them. “I think food trucks are such a staple in Austin,” Robinson said. “If it ever came to a point where rent was really starting to threaten the industry in Austin, there would be changes.”
For more information, visit communityimpact.com .
8.1% employment increase since Q1 2020 Food truck -22.7% employment decrease since Q1 2020 Restaurants
50% 40% 30% 20% 10% -10% -20% -30% -40% -50% 0%
BOUNCE BACK Quarterly data shows that Austin-area food trucks have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, while brick-and- mortar restaurants have not.
SOURCES: TEXAS WORKFORCE COMMISSION, QUARTERLY CENSUS OF EMPLOYMENT & WAGESCOMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER
SOUTHWEST AUSTIN DRIPPING SPRINGS EDITION • OCTOBER 2021
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