For the past 14 months, South Carolinians have flocked to food trucks, with indoor dining restricted for the bulk of that time.
It made sense. The trucks are mobile, dish out typically strong grub and run outdoors — where the threat of COVID-19 is lessened, and it's easier to social distance from others. The moveable eateries — such as popular new arrival Chubby’s Burgers — thrived in this time,
Chubby’s owner Chris Sarant saw the truck's business grow rapidly after starting the enterprise in July of last year, and it has roughly tripled its sales since September, he said. Now he is looking for a location to open a brick-and-mortar and capitalize on that rapid success.
“I’ve always known our burgers are amazing, not to be cocky,” Sarant enthused, “but coming on at the time we did had everything to do with our success.”
But despite success stories like Chubby’s, it appears the pandemic may not have sparked any real growth when it comes to the amount of food trucks operating in the Midlands. The number of active business licenses in Columbia and Lexington suggest that the area’s crop of food trucks either stayed about the same or saw marginal increases.
Over a three-year period in Columbia, active food truck licenses declined from a high of 34 in 2019 to 28 in 2020 and 2021. In Lexington, there was growth, but the bulk of it happened prior to the pandemic. The thriving suburb went from 29 licensed food trucks in 2018 to 37 in 2019 and 40 in 2020; Lexington’s business license year runs through April 30, so 2021 figures are not yet available.
“It’s definitely static. The same people we’re seeing out right now, are the same ones we saw last year,” Sarant suggested. “The ones that made it through the pandemic are still operating, the ones that didn’t are unfortunately not coming back.”
People interested in starting a truck may have missed the moment, he said, explaining that the timing for one to begin one was in the early days of the pandemic. Now, many popular food truck stomping grounds are regularly booked, and it could be difficult for them to find openings, Sarant posited.
Other barriers, like the start-up costs, which Sarant estimated to be about $50,000, and uncertainty amid the state’s economy likely deterred some.
“People don’t know what’s going to happen with food trucks, now that restaurants are operating at full capacity,” he said.
There are others, besides Chubby’s, who started early in the pandemic. El Guapo Tacos founder Jeffrey Neilson was the lead sous chef at Main Street's The Grand restaurant and bowling alley when COVID-19 first rocked the industry.
He moved to South Carolina from California, the country’s top food truck state, and saw an opportunity. Neilson’s wife suggested he find a way to build an Instagram following of 10,000 before starting the truck. To his surprise, he hit that number in a few months, rather than years, like he expected.
“People seemed to love it and rave reviews and stuff. Let’s go for it,” Neilson recalled.
He’s finding success. His truck is booked three to four months in advance.
Based on his own interactions through social media, Neilson does feel more new trucks have spawned.
“A lot of the new trucks are asking, ‘What do I have to do for this city, where do you get a generator?’” he said.
Adrianna Favila, owner of the popular Mexican food truck Los Chicanos’s, agreed with Neilson. Her truck has operated since 2018 with regular stops at local bars and the weekly Soda City Market.
She said it seems like many of the food trucks she sees now are unfamiliar to her, despite her three-year tenure in the field. Favilla was uncertain whether the business licensure data should be taken as a clear indicator of growth.
“I didn’t know what permits or business licenses I had to get until they invited me (to Soda City),” Favila reasoned.
There may be some credibility to that argument, as Neilson’s El Guapo Tacos has yet to secure his licensure in Columbia. He said he was tied up in paperwork and it bled into the next licensing period, meaning he had to start over again.
The licensing can be a headache to food trucks operating in South Carolina, as they need permits at various municipal levels, from city to county and above. For instance, Neilson didn’t get a license for Chapin until recently, when he was brought on for an event.
“It’s definitely been a learning process, there’s a lot of licensing,” he said.
On one of the area’s most popular Facebook groups for food trucks, Soda City Food Truck Finder, there’s more than 2,000 members. The page is filled with trucks promoting themselves and their stops or potential venues, and events or neighborhoods looking to host a truck.