Covid-19 Is Creating Detours for Houston's Food Trucks
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On a regular day, Ortega’s Kitchen food truck would be proudly parked in front of a high school, reflecting the Houston sun off its chrome. Erica and José Ortega, high school sweethearts who have been married for more than 20 years, would be in the truck’s kitchen, wearing matching logo shirts, chopping jalapeños for their salsa verde, or stuffing cheese into a quesadilla grande con carne in preparation for the lines of kids they'll serve during lunch period.
Then in March, Covid-19 hit, school went online, and bars and restaurants shut down. Outdoor events like RodeoHouston and graduation parties—which often call upon the services of food trucks—were cancelled.
The Ortegas knew they were in trouble.
“[Covid-19] made us rethink, because overall, we love the business,” says José Ortega. “We’re not giving up on it, but bills are going to keep coming, so we had to keep it.”
Food trucks are a staple in Houston culture. Whether you’re shopping in Rice Village or strolling through a museum in Midtown, there’s a food truck nearby, ready to serve you anything from fajitas con arroz y frijoles to crawfish étouffée. But because of Covid-19, food truck vendors like the Ortegas have had to adapt and alter the ways they do business.
Jason Harry of EaDeaux’s Cajun Cocina food truck, which he owns with his wife, Starr, had a similar experience. The Harrys had to change their truck’s schedule from four to five days a week at restaurants and bars to popping up once a month at their full-time business, EaDo Hand Car Wash at 2919 Leeland St.
Jason Harry says that at the start of quarantine, he had to be more focused on his full-time job and buying food for his family rather than trying to operate the food truck.
“Some of the first weeks of Covid, I was just making sure that we had enough meat in our house to sustain for a week,” he says. “We would go to the stores and wear a mask, but it was uncomfortable going into the store back then. It’s like, if I have to go to the store a couple of times a week just to run the food truck, and a food truck isn’t really necessary income, it’s probably time to slow it down.”
EaDeaux’s, which specializes in the fusion of Cajun and Tex-Mex, serves everything from boudin quesadillas and gumbo to crawfish nachos, when available. They’ve been able to keep making all their dishes during the pandemic and hope to eventually work four to five days a week again whenever it’s safe. In the meantime, they’ll remain a pop-up business.
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Along with the Ortegas and Harrys, Manny Castaneda of Whatcha Cravin Food Truck and Catering has also had to change his business model.
Having grown up in the restaurant industry, Castaneda started out as a waiter at America’s in The Woodlands before working his way up to general manager of upscale steakhouse Mo’s, A Place for Steaks in the Galleria. Despite his front-of-the-house positions, Castaneda says that he's always found a way to get into the kitchen, talk to chefs, and work on his cooking techniques. After sitting on the concept for about five years, he was able to launch Whatcha Cravin, a food truck and catering business that serves classic American food. Since then, he’s been able to open a second truck.
“I just felt like it was time to jump out, have faith and try something on my own—start building a brand and a legacy for my family, and we did it,” Castaneda says. “We've been on the streets ever since.”
Before Covid-19, Whatcha Cravin was working on building more relationships with local schools, churches, and businesses. They did catering for birthdays, graduations, or any big event that needed food. When people started quarantining, Castaneda slowed down the food truck and started honing his craft even more, including fine-tuning details on the truck and menu and working on the business’s taxes and various other issues.
Castaneda is focusing on catering and private events right now rather than the food truck, but he hopes that he can eventually open a full-service restaurant.
“[A brick-and-mortar place] is in the plans ultimately, maybe within a year or two,” Castaneda says. “Now with Covid … let’s see how it leaves the industry and see if it's the right move.”
The Ortegas also hope to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in a couple of years. They also want to head to the East Coast. But that's all far away for now.
These days the Ortegas operate every other week, giving away free dishes with orders to encourage more business. Like so many other food truck operators in town, for them, right now it's more about survival.