How four local food trucks braved the pandemic—and where they’ll be this summer.
When the pandemic caused restaurants to close for in-person dining, food trucks offered a safe, socially distant way to eat out, and they kept breweries afloat when they reopened with limited seating and were required to offer food.
Needless to say, food trucks have been a godsend during the pandemic. And with festival season now in full swing for the first time in two years, both rookies and experienced food truck owners are gearing up for what could be their busiest summer yet. Competition is high, supplies and staff are scarce, and prices are unpredictable. But if there’s something every food truck owner who made it through 2020 knows, it’s that passion and resilience go a long way.
THE TACO MAN
Chris Burke and wife Brenda had just put the finishing touches on Berthoud’s newest food truck, The Taco Man, and had it inspected the day before Larimer County issued a public health order for restaurants, bars and some retailers to close. The couple scrambled to find places where they could set up and start making a name for themselves, even if it meant driving to Boulder and Louisville just to find a spot.
“We took everything we could get in the beginning,” Chris Burke says. “We reached out to all kinds of vendors to see if we could get on their calendar, and the only times available were on their least busy days, like Mondays and Tuesdays. So, we started at the bottom of the list and kept proving ourselves until we eventually worked our way up to busier times and developed a bigger fan base closer to home.”
After just over a year in business, The Taco Man has become one of the region’s most sought-after taco trucks, thanks to their Sonoran, Mexico, meets Colorado style and authentic, down-to-earth service. With all kinds of opportunities on the horizon, the couple prefers the intimacy of brewery settings and private events to larger festivals. And they have no problem filling their schedule now—they’ve secured regular spots at some of the most popular breweries around Northern Colorado, including City Star Brewing, Maxline Brewing, Loveland Aleworks and Timnath Beerwerks—and they’re already booking for 2022.
As it turns out, The Taco Man wasn’t the only new name to break into the local food truck scene in April 2020. Another food truck was hitting the streets in Loveland and Fort Collins, this time serving pizza.
Ciao! Mobile Pizzeria was Plan B for Dan Maguire and Jennifer Davis, two lifelong chefs who were closing in on their dream of opening an Italian woodfired pizza restaurant in Vail when the pandemic hit. The couple’s plans had been in the works since the previous summer, but when they saw restaurants shutting down left and right in March 2020, they thought twice about their venture. The couple had gotten to experience the food and culture of Italy in previous years while visiting Maguire’s family, and they wanted to bring traditional Neapolitan-style pizza to Colorado in a way that had never been done before. What they didn’t anticipate was that they’d be putting their pizzeria on wheels instead of opening a sit down restaurant.
“As a new food truck, we really had to pound the pavement and send lots of emails to break into the industry,” Maguire says. “We’d walk into breweries with business cards and try to be as excited and friendly as possible. We’re really passionate about our craft, and I think a lot of breweries saw that and decided to give us a chance.”
It’s a good thing they did. Ciao! quickly gained a following as customers fell in love with the couple’s homemade sourdough crust and flavorful ingredients imported from Italy, and they were invited back time and time again. Now Maguire and Davis are looking at a busy summer—they’ve secured regular spots at Zwei Brewing, Odell Brewing and Stodgy Brewing in Fort Collins, as well as Timnath Beerwerks and Sparge Brewing in Wellington. They will also be at Taste of Fort Collins this month and have booked several dates at the FoCo Food Truck Rally at City Park.
While Ciao! and The Taco Man were getting up and running at the start of the pandemic, many of the veteran food trucks we know and love were experiencing their own setbacks. Having a solid foundation under them certainly helped, but this was unfamiliar territory that required some quick thinking and reliance on the community’s support.
Sara Gilman, owner of Umami Ninjas, turned to Noco Nosh delivery service to get to-go orders out into the community when last year’s festival season was at a standstill. In non-COVID times, Umami could be found at nearly every festival around Northern Colorado, including the FoCo Food Truck Rally and the Taste of Fort Collins.
“In a normal year, I’m usually booked for the summer by May, but last summer was a lull because we rely on festivals and don’t really do the brewery thing,” Gilman says. “Thankfully, we already had a decent following from all our years in business—our seared dumplings sell themselves, and our Thai peanut sauce is to die for, so people still found ways to support us.”
By the looks of it, this year will be a much more normal season for Gilman. Umami will be back at the Taste of Fort Collins and at the FoCo Food Truck Rally every Tuesday through mid-September. Gilman is already looking to the fall and has been booked for the Elk Fest and Pumpkins & Pilsners Festival in Estes Park.
LEAVE IT TO CLEAVER
Festivals and brewery-hopping aside, last year’s food truck season looked a lot different for one mobile eatery that, until now, has chosen to stay put. Leave it to Cleaver, one of Wellington’s most popular food trucks, has been stationed at Soul Squared Brewing since its grand opening on July 4, 2019. According to co-owner of both companies, Mary Gray, it’s a perfect match that might not have survived the pandemic without each other—and the incredible support of the Wellington community.
“Craft breweries really struggled over the last year because we have a higher price point than liquor stores,” she explains. “We’re not just selling great beer; people come to enjoy the environment, too, and when you can’t offer that, it’s really hard to get customers in the door. With Cleaver here, we were able to offer deals on our beer to go with the food, which provided more of that experience people were looking for.”
With breweries back to full capacity and the return of food truck season, Gray and her husband recently decided to expand and embark on another venture: a mobile version of Leave it to Cleaver with all the same mouth-watering barbecue, wings and burgers. The new food truck, called “Blue,” hit the road in April and had its great debut at the Wellington Brewfest last month. It will also be traveling all over Northern Colorado this summer and can be found at the Rockie Mountain Saddle Club, FoCo Food Truck Rally and Paddler’s Pub at Mountain Whitewater.