When restaurants shut down in March 2020, Darnell "D" Smith, owner of the local food truck Mr. Wonderful's Chicken & Waffles, had to get creative. He started looking for customers ... anywhere. Smith says he sat down and wrote a list of every business that was open and had a decent amount of foot traffic. He called every single place, from dispensaries to grocery stores, and asked if he could set up his food truck outside.
It paid off. Smith has since served at Sam's Club, Sonny's Gentlemen's Club, Greenwood Brewing, and more.
"I’ve always been a fighter, I’ve always tried to be the one that thinks outside the box," says Smith. "(COVID) forced me to be more creative than I was being at the time."
Smith's not the only mobile food vendor who got scrappy and successfully pivoted. He's adhering to advice from Kat Moore, founder of Best In Show — an event management company that connects food trucks with festivals and other gatherings. Moore is also the co-owner of Short Leash Hot Dogs. She and her husband, Brad Moore, operated the extremely popular Short Leash food truck for years before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2013. So, she knows her stuff.
Moore says these times call for innovative strategies, like Smith's. Trucks have to create partnerships, develop strong brands, and make efforts to keep loyal customers. "Having people who really like what you do and who are followers of yours really does help you last through all of this chaos," she says.
She adds that trucks must be consistent in their schedule, something Smith has made a point to be. Customers always know where to find him.
"I'm a beast at social media," he says. Smith posts live videos often to engage with and invite customers. His Instagram, @mrwonderfulscwaz, has more than 4,000 followers. Mr. Wonderful's now does private catering for Sam's Club's and Walmart's corporate events. And he recently announced he's looking to expand his business and hiring.
The last year has "definitely been profitable," Smith says. "It's because of what I've been doing."
Meanwhile, Phoenix Coqui is busy following Moore's advice to create new partnerships.
The Puerto Rican food truck was founded by Alexis Carbajal and Juan Alberto Ayala in 2015. They were initially hit hard by the pandemic, losing profits and employees. However, Carbajal says Phoenix Coqui has come back, stronger than before the pandemic.
Phoenix Coqui has had a partnership with The Rock, a gay and drag bar in the Melrose District, long before COVID. When the truck resumed business in May 2020, the partners made the decision to change their hours, which opened them up to a new market of customers.
Pre-pandemic, they would operate from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., serving mostly late-night bar patrons and night-shift nurses. Now, their hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. They are able to serve guests comfortably in The Rock's large parking lot which allows for social distance. Carbajal says their staff will also bring food to people's cars.
As a result, Phoenix Coqui has had record-breaking months of sales. To keep up with the business growing at "an exponential rate," Carbajal says the staff had to double.
"We’re just extremely happy with how things worked out after being closed for three months," says Carbajal. "It's good to be validated."
Then there's Chilte Tacos. Chilte was founded by Lawrence Smith and Aseret Arroyo during the pandemic (and was recommended in our recent restaurant review). The owners had plans to create Chilte long before COVID, but when bars and restaurants shut down last spring, the couple decided to jumpstart the concept.
“COVID had the opposite effect for us,” Smith says. “The pandemic propelled us into it, whether we were ready or not.”
Before Chilte, Arroyo was in marketing, and Smith was an NFL player with the Indianapolis Colts before going to culinary school. The pair combined their marketing and cooking skills to start Chilte Tacos in September. The pop-up has frequented farmers' markets and breweries around the Valley. They've also been a returning favorite at Thunderbird Lounge (which brings in several food trucks each week to feed guests on its 5,000-square-foot back patio) for Taco Tuesdays.
The pop-up serves Sinaloan-style street food combining Arroyo's heritage and Smith's imaginative food combinations. The menu is ever-changing, but some popular items include birria ramen and butternut squash and goat cheese tacos served on colorful, hand-pressed tortillas.
Chilte Tacos recently received more attention on social media when a TikTok video by @azfoodie highlighting a specific African and Puerto Rican dish went viral (though there was much backlash about its supposed cultural appropriation). Either way, the video blew-up their pop-up, causing them to sell out one weekend in less than an hour.
With this success since opening in fall 2020, the couple hopes to expand and eventually start a restaurant group.
Chilte, Smith says, is just the beginning.