PORTLAND, Maine — After a year of dismal headlines and lost tourist dollars during the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s widely praised food scene may lean more heavily on food trucks than ever.
There were three times as many licensed food trucks in Portland last month than there were in 2019. Those totals could signal another surge in the number of mobile food options on the scene as chefs find ways around high rents and the lingering threat of the virus.
Food trucks are “still in high demand,” said Josh Dionne, who runs Tacos del Seoul, a Korean- and Mexican-inspired kitchen on wheels.
In 2019, the last “normal” year unaffected by a pandemic, the city had licensed 7 food trucks by the end of March, its permit renewal deadline. By late June, that figure had swelled to 37. This year, there were 21 licensed food trucks at the deadline, suggesting a potential midsummer explosion. The total will most likely be greater as city inspectors review new entries over the next few weeks, said Jessica Hanscombe, Portland’s permitting director.
One reason for the spike is catering demand, which is “through the roof” this year, Dionne said. He and other mobile chefs are supplementing daily schedules with weddings, birthday and graduation parties and other events people are planning after getting vaccinated.
Even Portland’s legacy restaurants want in. Steve DiMillo, who owns DiMillo’s On the Water off Commercial Street, is awaiting a permit for a food cart that he wants to sell lobster rolls, clam chowder and ice cream from near his floating restaurant on Long Wharf.
Street chefs need an element of hustle that those in storefront kitchens don’t. There’s a finite number of worthwhile spots to park a truck. Owners wake earlier each year to claim their terrain, which is governed by an informal set of rules. Despite this competition, the people in the food scene are mutually supportive, Dionne said.
“We’re always passing each other’s name around,” Dionne said, adding that he’s handed off catering requests to other trucks each of the last five weekends because Tacos del Seoul was already booked. “Especially after this year, we’re all kind of in the same battle.”
With COVID cases still on the rise in Maine, outdoor and to-go options are seen as a safer route for diners and restaurant staff, with less risk of airborne contamination that spreads the virus.
That factor weighed on Siobhan Sindoni this spring as she mapped the course for Roll Call, a food cart she runs with her husband and his brother. Roll Call sells hoagies and other sandwiches and was licensed last summer, a year after the Sindonis moved to Portland.
The cart hopped around the parking lots of local breweries during the warmer season but hunkered down come winter, when Sindoni forged an agreement with Little Giant to share dining space at their location on the West End.
Typically, scoring neighborhood dining space would be a boon to a mobile business. But all winter, Sindoni could only guess what the spring would bring. Would vaccines become so widely available that people would eat inside again? Early April, she unmoored Roll Call from its Clark Street location, amicably ending her arrangement with the restaurant.
“I think the vaccine rolling out and people getting it is great, but I think being outdoors just feels better for us and our guests,” Sindoni said.
Prime spots remain dotted along the Eastern Promenade, a restaurant desert in a neighborhood where rents have skyrocketed, and the Western Promenade, where they can attract picnickers and those breaking for lunch outside Maine’s largest hospital.
But the scene has developed other hot zones. A natural relationship between the food and beverage scenes made bars and breweries natural locations years ago, but the pandemic has opened up other opportunities. Seeing reduced foot traffic, retailers and other businesses have come to view food trucks as a ticket back to business.
“With the food truck scene being so big now, [businesses] are just randomly reaching out to food trucks,” Dionne said, offering them parking spots as a way of attracting customers.
Once a week, Tacos del Seoul has docked their truck weekly in the parking lot of Fireside Inn and Suites, a hotel on the city’s outer limits. The inn reached out because the restaurant has been closed during the pandemic, allowing Dionne to branch out to an untapped part of town. It’s an unlikely partnership, but it works.
“Everybody around has had to be as creative as possible,” Dionne said.