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Ames food trucks 'greatly struggling' during COVID-19 pandemic, countywide bar closures

Kylee Mullen
Ames Tribune
Melissa Haynes of Finley Curbside Beasrea serves foods to customer Adriana Lisman from the food truck at Osborn Drive at Iowa State University on Thursday, Sep. 17, 2020, in Ames, Iowa.

Last September, Ames food truck Cheese Steak Factory set up for its daily lunch hour operation on Iowa State University's campus and saw a long line of diners. 

This year, however, owner Ryan Mitchell is wondering how he will keep his business afloat the rest of the year, as few customers are lining up for the signature cheese steaks during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I should have a line form while I’m setting up and then be making six cheese steaks at a time, as fast as I can go, from the first order to the last,” Mitchell said. “Instead, I’m so slow that I’m actually getting bored … I’m not sure how I’m going to survive.”

And Mitchell is not alone in this struggle; local business owners throughout the country have faced various challenges as a result of the virus. The financial strain alone has caused many businesses to close their doors permanently while others remain hanging by a thread. 

For area food truck operations, the sudden shutdown last month of bars and breweries in Story County, paired with lower numbers of students attending in-person classes at ISU and summer-long event cancellations, has added to those struggles. 

Rising cases cause bar shutdowns

As of Wednesday morning, 3,185 total COVID-19 cases had been reported in Story County. Of those, 1,431 people had recovered and 17 residents have died a result of the virus, according to Iowa's coronavirus website. 

The county's 14-day positivity rate sits at 10.9%, an improvement from the 20.2% positivity rate reported Sept. 8. 

Although the rate of new cases has dropped in recent weeks, Iowa was listed by the New York Times Tuesday as having the eighth-highest per-capita rate of new infections in the country. 

In addition, ISU reported Wednesday that since Aug. 1, just over 1,000 people at the university — students, staff, faculty and graduate assistants — have tested positive for the illness during on-campus testing. That total does not include move-in testing.

In an attempt to slow the spread, Gov. Kim Reynolds on Aug. 27 ordered bars closed in six of the state's 99 counties. At the time, she cited fast-spreading coronavirus cases among young adults, including college students. 

The order closed bars in Polk, Linn, Johnson, Story, Dallas and Black Hawk counties, and it banned restaurants in those counties from selling alcohol after 10 p.m. The order was to stay in effect until Sept. 20.

A new order on Tuesday allowed bars to reopen in all but Story and Johnson, homes to ISU and the University of Iowa. 

Many public health officials, including those at the White House coronavirus task force, recommended the governor take stronger action as Iowa tried to rein in what became the sharpest coronavirus outbreak in the country a few weeks ago.

Ames bar owners were shocked when the shutdown was ordered, with Whiskey River sports bar owner Nicki Romare saying she “didn’t really expect this.” At Fenceline Brewery in Huxley, owner Susan Frantz was similarly frustrated. 

Food trucks, however, were an unexpected victim of the closures. While they were not forced to cease operation, their ability to attract customers and bring in profit was greatly affected.

"The food truck scene is so important to making communities vibrant,” Ames Chamber of Commerce President Dan Culhane said. “I’ve been really excited to see how the food truck industry has grown in the Ames market, because that’s a strong indicator that there’s high demand, and so it’s really frustrating and unfortunate that we’re in the situation that we are right now.

"It’s been tough and very challenging for a number of our food truck vendors.” 

'We are at this fine line, and there is a lot of conflict'

Burgers On The Fly owner Keith Winefeldt had just formed a partnership with downtown Ames arcade bar TimeOut, where he would set his truck up outside of the bar in order to attract diners.

However, his plans changed after bars were forced to close, after having already closed and reopened once before in previous months. It just didn't make sense to set up shop there, he said, since the bars would no longer bring the foot traffic his business relies on. 

While he understands why the order was made, citing large gatherings in Campustown, he fears the long-term impact the closures will have on his business and other area food truck operations which are "greatly struggling." 

It's a fine line between wanting to keep the community safe and wanting to keep his business running, he said. 

"Do we approve of a bunch of college students going out and not masking up and being dangerous? Of course not," he said previously. "But we do also have a bottom line we have to protect."

Iowa State University employees and students get food from food trucks during lunchtime at Osborn Drive on campus Thursday, Sept 17, 2020, in Ames, Iowa.

Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said it's a conflict many restaurants and hospitality businesses have faced but has been especially difficult for food trucks, which "are already seasonal" and are often "tied to bars, which are tied to capacity limits."

"As a result, the idea that you could sustain yourself is almost impossible," Dunker said. "If your only business is a food truck, it's going to be pretty difficult to see how you'll be able to carry on into next year."

Winefeldt has struggled to adjust his business since the pandemic's onset first caused business closures in March. Since then, he said, "we've been fighting tooth and nail just to keep it alive."

"There are so many elements that can work against us in just one day's time, and it can change again overnight," Winefeldt said. "We have to continuously adapt with every change that keeps happening, and it gets tough."

Not being able to set up for summer events, such as Campustown's Summerfest, has added yet another obstacle, he said. 

And for Mitchell, who sets up his afternoon operation on ISU's campus, the strain has been felt there as well. 

“I’m not sure how I’m going to survive a year without a good fall,” he said.

'Business is at a trickle' on ISU's campus

Cheese Steak Factory would usually see its peak business during September and October while set up on ISU's campus during the lunch hour. 

This year, though, Mitchell said it's seeing one-fifth its usual traffic.

"Campus is largely abandoned; it's a ghost campus," Mitchell said. "There should be hoards of students but there is hardly anyone ... business is at a trickle but I can't abandon my campus spot because I fear ISU will fill it with someone else."

The decline in traffic has caused him to let several members of his staff go, and he moved his Welch Avenue operation to the corner of 13th Street and Grand Avenue in hopes of attracting some "townies" business. It's been "not great, but not bad," in that location so far. 

It's still not enough, though, to completely save his business, especially as winter looms. 

Iowa State University sophomore Geoffrey Percell gets lunch at Osborn Drive on campus Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Ames, Iowa.

“September and October are (usually) my two best months,” Mitchell said. “The rest of the year I am fighting the cold winter, wet spring and dead summer. If it’s this bad right now, I don’t want to know how bad it’s going to be once the weather changes.

'We need to find a way to work around these things, not just shut them down'

Dunker said for many of the state's restauraunts, bars and food truck operations, the "situation is dire." Without federal help, she expects many businesses to close before the pandemic ends. 

"There's a reason 100,000 restaurants around the country have already closed and are not going to reopen," she said. "We already have a tight margin business, and people just aren't going to be able to survive it."

That does not mean area businesses are without hope. Winefeldt has already seen proof of how much a community could help food truck businesses survive when last month the derecho storm ripped through central Iowa and caused mass power outages.

Following the storm, Winefeldt said food trucks saw a spotlight focusing on them. Their operations “were the heroes” serving the communities in need. 

“We were out there serving everybody, we were the places that were open and serving mass volumes of people, and we did everything we could,” Winefeldt said. “We put in a lot of aggressive man-hours and a lot of people don’t know the struggles we go through behind the curtains to provide that to people.”

That spotlight quickly faded the moment the power turned back on, he said, but it gave him hope. He hopes more community members will give their local food trucks a shot at safely serving them during the pandemic.

"If you enjoy the food truck industry, if you appreciate what we do, we’re not asking you to go out and spend your money every day, but show your support. Come out and see us," he said.

"All of the businesses in town, the restaurants, bars, everybody plays a very important role in the circulation of the community ... We need to find a way to work around these things, not just shut them down."