That’s a fairly mild stretch by Utah standards. Still, that’s 112 days — nearly a third of the entire year.
Utah’s weather and geography aren’t ideal for the food truck industry. Cold weather and snow often mean decreased crowds, frozen equipment and risky road conditions. Yet that industry has blossomed over the past few years, with hundreds of food trucks frequenting Salt Lake County and nearby Utah County. The Deseret News interviewed a number of folks involved with the local food trucks — current food truck owners, former food truck owners, legislators and food truck coordinators — about how the scene is adapting to Utah’s long, cold winters.
‘A slap in the face’
When West Jordan’s Daysha Filipe decided to start a food truck, she talked to the owner of Q4U BBQ Truck in Midvale about his approach. Q4U simply shuts down during the winter, reopening once springtime hits.
“It’s going to suck,” Q4U's owner told Filipe of the winter season. “It’s going to suck really bad.”
“The first winter, everyone warned me,” Filipe recalled, “but it was definitely like a slap in the face — from summer being so great, and then winter going drastically downward.”
Filipe’s truck, The Salty Pineapple, just braved its second winter. Filipe admitted she was unprepared that first winter. Other food trucks in the area had done their winter bookings far in advance, and Filipe found herself scrounging for events, taking any gig that would come her way.
The Salty Pineapple barely broke even that season, and Filipe almost picked up a second job.
This time around, she tackled winter’s challenges a number of ways. For one, she learned more isn’t necessarily better. Going to an event, only to have a poor turnout, is a waste of time, food and fuel. Filipe said she’s been more selective about events this winter. When it’s cold, The Salty Pineapple only serves during lunch hours. (In contrast, during the summertime, they’ll serve all three mealtimes and beyond, occasionally pulling a 20-hour workday.) In addition, The Salty Pineapple does more catering gigs in the winter.
“When it’s cold, no one wants to come out to a truck and sit in the freezing cold and wait in line for their food,” she said.
‘They love new things’
No one has to wait outside for Normal Ice Cream, a new food truck that has set up shop inside Trolley Square since January. It’s been the perfect fit — yes, Utahns love ice cream, but maybe not enough to eat it outdoors during the winter.
While Utah food trucks generally struggle to draw big crowds in winter, it hasn’t been an issue for Normal Ice Cream. Alexa Norlin, the truck’s owner, said she averages 150-200 customers per day at Trolley Square.
“I mean, yeah, obviously I’m concerned — I want everybody to come every single day, and small businesses are way hard — but even though Salt Lake City is cold, I think people here love ice cream, and I also think they love new things,” she said.
Utah’s food trucks generally are handling winter better these days, partly because of an improving infrastructure.
The Food Truck League, a local organization that handles scheduling for many of Utah’s food trucks, launched in 2015. When the Food Truck League started, they were excited to have their first 20 trucks register, said Taylor Harris, the group's general manager. Things have picked up since then: Harris said the Food Truck League has registered more than 300 trucks. He estimates they worked with more than 140 trucks last year, coordinating more than 7,000 bookings.
The Food Truck League is opening a food truck park, complete with indoor seating, in South Jordan later this year. They’ve also developed a smartphone app that tracks down which food trucks are where on any given date.
“(Utah isn’t) like some of these states, where you can just go park in a spot and just sit there and wait for people to come to you,” Harris said. “They have to constantly be finding good locations.”
Local food trucks, Harris said, become “outreach vehicles.” In the winter they often pair with small restaurant spaces so patrons can eat indoors.
Finding and securing good spots — at food truck roundups, business parks, etc. — is where Utah’s growing number of food trucks makes things more difficult. The Food Truck League has to spread its bookings evenly, meaning a truck might not get to return to a given location for a few months, even if it draws a big crowd.
“The first winter for trucks is kind of like a proving ground. If you can make it through your first winter, that’s usually a good test of whether it’s going to work,” Harris said. “The success rate through the winter is much higher now than it was if you go back a couple years.”
‘Everybody wants a piece of the pie’
For all the food trucks that have found wintertime solutions, there have been other casualties. Chop City, a bacon-themed Utah food truck, was one of the area’s most popular trucks but folded midway through 2017 after lasting multiple winters.
Andrew Simeona, Chop City’s owner, remembered waking up on cold winter mornings to find the truck’s water lines frozen. Without those water lines running, they weren’t legally allowed to operate. He said weather cancellations were a common problem for them.
“If the roads are icy and snowy, it doesn’t matter what tires you have on a food truck, that thing is not safe to have out and be cruising all around town,” Simeona said. “You want to drive it sparingly, not only for your own safety, but for the safety of everyone else.”
Utah’s metropolitan areas are fairly spread out. Staying put isn’t really an option for local food trucks. This mobility has put trucks at odds with many city governments, which each have their own licensing fees. Serving food in numerous Utah cities means trucks had to pay each city’s licensing fees, some of which were exorbitantly high. Collectively, they often became insurmountable for fledging businesses.
The Libertas Institute, a Utah nonprofit that seeks to affect change “through legal research, public advocacy and advertising, lawsuits against the government, events, publications, and more,” according to its website, has helped craft and pass legislation in Utah to streamline and eliminate these municipal costs.
Connor Boyack, the Libertas Institute’s general manager, said city governments’ fees were rooted more in ignorance than nefarious intent. Cities hadn’t dealt with mobile businesses like this before.
“When you compound the ignorance of these cities, it created a nightmare,” Boyack said.
Utah’s harsh winters, Boyack explained, narrow the amount of time its food truck owners can make money, and therefore pay off city fees. While more cities have abided the legislation, others still haven’t complied.
“Everybody wants a piece of the pie,” said Guillermo Burgess, who runs Better Burger, a food truck based in Orem, during the truck’s lunchtime visit to the Gateway Mall on Tuesday. “You’re getting tugged so many different ways.”
For Burgess, fresh food is key. He picks up his burger patties the day before or the day of an event, and orders them in advance. At Tuesday’s Gateway Mall gig, for example, Burgess brought 80 patties. For events like these, he said he hopes to sell $500-$800 worth of food. If snow, ice or other inclement weather keeps his truck off the road, he has to cancel. That’s a lot of food (and money) down the drain.
Burgess serves burgers fresh to order, and said he cuts down his cooking time to about four minutes per burger during the winter.
“People don’t want to wait 10 to 15 minutes for a burger out in the cold,” he said.
‘People still need to eat’4 comments on this story
Barring massive global warming, Utah’s winters will continue being just as long and just as cold. And, it seems, Utah’s food entrepreneurs will continue serving food through it all. Ivan Regino, an employee at Fuego Mexican Grill, stepped outside the food truck during a lull in business on Tuesday afternoon. He joined Fuego in the middle of winter and said the truck has struggled to break even during those months.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a long line started forming in front of the truck.
“Even with snow or with cold weather,” he said, “the people still need to eat, you know?”