Greek Street Food owner George Karanikos says trade for his business dropped by more than 90% amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Karanikos, who runs a restaurant in Thornbury and has been operating a food truck for about seven years, says the business lost all the major events that it was scheduled to attend, as well as corporate lunches, which disappeared as people shifted to working from home in droves.
“Since March, whatever bookings we had were cancelled. I know restrictions have been eased recently, but there’s uncertainty about what’ll happen in the future,” Karanikos tells SmartCompany.
“Who knows where we’ll be in two to four months time.”
But, he says the Where The Truck app, which allows users to explore and find a food truck, pre-order and pay for products and arrange for pick-ups or delivery drop-offs using a mobile drive-through service, has made it easier for customers to find Greek Street Food.
“Any [trade] is a pick-up for the business at the moment,” he says.
“We went from having nothing booked, to picking up little events here and there through the app.”
Owned by the Australian Mobile Food Vendors Group (AMFVG), the app also has a ‘Food Truck in My Street’ function, which allows customers to book for food trucks to come to their residential street.
AMFVG director Frank Rusitovski says this function has helped connect neighbours over their favourite food truck.
“It’s like the ice cream truck coming down the street — it’s a way of connecting people. You hear the bell and, while you’re there, it’s an opportunity to reach out and have a chat with your neighbour,” he says.
After completing a street function in Yarraville last week, which saw about 35-40 people order from five to six households, Karanikos says it’s like street trading, but in a residential area.
“People find out about the trucks through word of mouth, and there’s a novelty element involved as well” he says.
“It’s been a real bonus.”
A new model for serving people
Launched in 2013 before being purchased by the AMFVG in 2018, Rusitovski says in the initial stages, the app was “very manual” and relied on time-poor vendors to update their location.
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The AMFVH spent close to $400,000 on research and development in order to create a more user-friendly and comprehensive experience for vendors, customers and event organisers.
Featuring a team of about 10 in-house staff, it has embedded a mapping system — which enables vendors to easily share their location — and provides data to event managers and vendors which, Karanikos says, gave him a rough idea regarding how to staff the truck.
Operating via an annual subscription model plus a 7% vendor fee, Rusitovski says the app is nearing on 30,000 users and has “been inundated with vendors who are wanting to be on the platform”.
“If the app offers the value it’s meant to, and provides the results we’re looking for, it’ll tap into a whole new customer experience,” he says.
“We’ll see customers using these food trucks more than we’re used to.”
Embraced because of COVID-19
Despite the widespread closure of events, the Where The Truck app has seen a 75% increase in downloads over the last three months.
According to Rusitovski, the pandemic has opened the minds of food truck operators, who are engaging in practices — including contactless payment and residential street parties — that will benefit them when “things go back to normal”.
“Our space will change post-COVID-19, but the beauty is that this new opportunity has been found,” he says.
“Even though food trucks are dealing with reduced customers, they are hitting [sales numbers] due to higher individual spend … which reflects the loyalty and goodwill that currently exists in the industry.
“The app has helped to connect vendors and customers at a time when it is hard to connect in traditional ways.”
Long-term changes that Rusitovski flags through the use of the app include reduced queue times due to pre-orders and payments, and increased attendance at events as customers will be able to track where and when a food truck will be at a particular location.
However, Karanikos doesn’t see the food truck industry going back to normal for another six months at least.
“If the [infection] levels of COVID-19 are kept to a minimum in this country, we might see events start to happen within the next year,” he says.
“It’s a strong community-based environment that we service, and it’s really important for us … so hopefully these events happen [soon].”