Columbia food trucks find success in the midst of a pandemic | Food & Drink

Christopher Sarant’s time working at a local KIA dealership was short-lived. He had just started the job when COVID-19 began to grip the Midlands earlier this year. The pandemic altered the structure and pulse of everyone’s daily life, and promptly led the dealership to lay off its new employee.

Not long after, Sarant, a former Charleston chef, went to a restaurant he declines to name and bought a burger. It was, as he puts it, a terrible burger. His wife suggested that he be the solution — why not start the food truck he had always dreamed of?

In June, Chubby’s Burgers was born, hosting a debut event in Sarant’s driveway and selling out of 100 burgers in three hours.

Since then, the food truck has rapidly risen to greasy prominence behind its smash burgers and fries, regularly spotting up at breweries, neighborhoods, business parks and other spots. Sarant churns through roughly 150 pounds of beef a week, sometimes topping 200.

“I absolutely love it,” Sarant tells Free Times. “It’s kind of like those people who don’t know how to sing and they go on to American Idol and then are surprised that people enjoy it

“It’s always a shock that more people than myself and my friends enjoy my food. It’s self-gratifying, it’s instant.”

He and business partner Jacob Stone’s rapid success comes as mobile food vendors in the Midlands are reporting record sales during the pandemic. Offering quick service with relatively little face-to-face interaction, food trucks and other similar vendors seem tailor-made to sate a cooped-up populace dying to regain some form of normalcy.

Smoked meat purveyor City Limits Barbeque has seen high sales since June, including a record day.

“I think its people gravitating to to-go food,” offers owner and pitmaster Robbie Robinson. “That’s definitely a huge advantage that most food trucks have, most food trucks have over the traditional brick and mortar, that we are effectively 100 percent to-go business.

“People can come in and don’t have to deal with the dining room and you know we definitely were able to take advantage of some of that.”

Still, the pandemic has been rougher on others.

For the owners of mobile operation Mary’s Arepas, COVID-19 hit hard. Maria Romero and her husband Gustavo Obeso both tested positive for the virus in July, and Romero’s brother died due to the virus. The difficult situation waylaid the business for a while.

After receiving negative tests, the owners have returned to service, stringently following health guidelines. Regulars at the weekly Soda City Market, they began to get booked for a large number of events. They say market sales are down by about 20 percent, but theorize that their slower pace due to heightened safety procedures could be a factor.

And recent events at places like WECO Bottle and Biergarten in West Columbia and Lazy Creek Taphouse in Chapin easily outpace the sales dip at the weekend market, Obeso says.

“People want to feel a little bit of normalcy,” he reasons. “Going to a bar and hanging out with friends is something they were craving for. Us being there, it’s another point for them to see things are going back to normal.”

Romero also reports that neighborhoods have frequently requested their services, offering a new venue to explore.

Adrianna Favila, co-owner of Mexican food truck Los Chicanos, reports similar success in this arena.

One of Los Chicanos’ first events back was at a subdivision in mid-May. Between stops at neighborhoods and the truck’s typical days at other venues, business has been flourishing, but that came after numerous cancellations in late March and a subsequent hiatus that lasted about a month.

Favila admits that she thought about closing the business due to the lack of sales during that down period, and low sales prior to that.

“We had no money, we weren’t able to pay ourselves anything,” she laments, but she shares that the recent success at subdivisions has changed things. “We weren’t expecting it to be that good.”

As for how long the food truck boom might last, Favila isn’t sure. The bookings keep coming in, though, and the truck has events lined up through November.

“We have never been so busy since the day we started our business in 2018,” Favilla shares. “I feel like the neighborhoods have helped us tremendously with our income and with getting us known.”

WECO co-owner Phill Blair says hosting food trucks is a boon for his new business, which opened in December. The vendors all have their own niche crowds of varying sizes, which can lead to new customers to check out his local beer spot, though Blair admits that some only come for the food.

He speculates that food trucks could grow in this time, as many food service workers may see the success and embrace the higher income possibilities that mobile operations can afford.

“I think some of them come here and see like, ‘Wow, there’s a line of 40 people paying me directly to make my own food,’” Blair posits. “Hopefully they do, the more there are the better the competition, the better the food gets.”

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong first name for Jacob Stone.

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