Oxford food truck owners have experienced their fair share of successes and difficulties as they try to keep their mobile businesses moving forward through the pandemic.
Just off of Highway 30 sits Red’s Catfish, where Ata Eldalati has managed the rose-colored truck with his girlfriend for the past two months. Red’s hasn’t struggled in the same way most restaurants have during the pandemic era, but instead faces a more basic trouble.
“I think the bigger factor than COVID is the weather, you know?” Eldalati said. “As far as business goes, we jumped in the game over here on Highway 30 with no advertisement, no warning, nothing. We just parked our food truck and opened our window and said ‘we’re going to serve some food.’ Since then, it’s been steady.”
This is Eldalati’s first role as a manager, though he has worked in kitchens for years. Based on the day in, day out work he puts into the truck, it would be hard to tell that he isn’t the owner.
Mornings begin early at the commissary kitchen where they stock up on the day’s food. Then comes setup, because running a truck not only makes Eldalati the chef, but the janitor and handyman as well. He starts up the generator, refills propane tanks, checks supply and cleans constantly throughout the day.
“If I were just some random dude that didn’t really have enough interest to grow this business, I could put in 50% of the effort that I’m putting in now and do the basic stuff,” Eldalati said. “But that’s not going to grow a business.”
Eldalati said the convenience of the food truck format is what keeps business flowing during a financially difficult time for most restaurants. He can move the truck to almost any location, change its schedule to fit demand, and his favorite, alter the menu as he pleases.
Coming up with new items for the menu creates a direct reward system that is both a blessing and a curse, according to Eldalati. Creativity is essential to success.
“It’s just kind of like constantly having your brain as a choo choo train, you know?” Eldalati said. “Once you get into it, you got to constantly keep going, because the moment you get flatlined or at a writer’s block, per se, business starts slowing down.”
Eldalati’s efforts seem to be working. Red’s completely sold out a full 30 minutes before the end of the “Food Truck Fight” event he catered last weekend.
This strive for quality food is something Eldalati shares with Jake Houston, owner of Jake’s BBQ. Houston tries to create as many ingredients in his truck as possible, from pickling jalapenos to making every one of his six featured sauces.
“A lot of food truck owners are owner operators,” Houston said. “So you’re getting the owner/head chef, the concepts going through the person’s hands, and that plays a huge part in the quality of what’s going out the window. It’s the best I can possibly do.”
Houston’s passion for barbeque began with his father, who through all of his childhood competed on a barbeque competition team. At 15, he got a permit to start cooking at Handy Andy’s and continued to do so throughout college. Now, he takes pride in the spin he puts on traditional barbeque.
The idea for the truck first came to him as a purely financial venture. He saw food trucks’ popularity rise in cities like D.C. and Austin, and in the beginning of March, just as COVID-19 began to hit Oxford, he opened Jake’s BBQ for business.
As restaurants around him shut their doors, he waited for the moment Jake’s would follow. That moment never came.
“I didn’t sleep for a couple days because I just didn’t know if it was gonna be a ‘nail in the coffin’ right off the bat or if it was gonna help me out,” Houston said. “The very first couple weeks were not slow, but you know, not crazy. Then after summer it just snowballed.”
Houston said he attributes much of his success to the adventurous nature of Oxford residents. If he took his barbeque concept to another city, it might not have worked, but nearly every day of the week, rain or shine, people come to Houston’s window with pictures of sandwiches from his social media.
It is difficult for some trucks to find locations to park, given that they need legal permission from the property owners. After being inspired by the food truck movements in other cities, Houston said he wonders why the city of Oxford hasn’t leaned into this growing food truck culture and given the trucks a place to park.
“I’d like the city to get together and do a ‘food truck day,’” Houston said. “My mom lives down in South Florida, and in her town every Thursday, food trucks flock from 10 cities over and they have this gigantic mini food truck festival once a week. I think that would go great here.”
Jesse Hurley, owner of the food truck Hotbox Hibachi, agrees with Houston. He tried to open the truck on the first gameday Saturday of the year, but due to issues with location and permits, he opened a month later on Oct. 24.
“It’s not as easy as just setting up anywhere. There’s laws and everything,” Hurley said. “I love that aspect of it. I could just move wherever I want. The first day we were over here nobody could see it. So I was like, ‘let me move it over there,’ and ever since we moved over there, it’s been popping off a lot more.”
While this is Hurley’s first business venture, he spent 10 years working on and off as a hibachi chef while his father ran a catering business on the Gulf Coast.
Seeing his father run a business inspired the idea of a hibachi food truck, but Hurley’s girlfriend motivated him to set up in Oxford. The idea to open shop predates the pandemic, and at times, Hurley said Oxford still seems risky.
“COVID put me out of work,” Hurley said. “It let me really draw up the plans and see how everything might run. I was like, ‘alright, well I kind of want to do this still,’ but a big drawback is what if there’s no students? What if everything’s online?”
Since his truck’s opening day, Hurley has had some small issues with location and experienced some slow days, but this is something he expected when starting a new business.
In the short time since the truck opened, he has already found recurring customers and received positive responses on social media. Still, he’s leaning toward moving the truck down to the gulf when semester is out to compensate for the drop in population caused by students leaving Oxford.
He is looking to make his truck more than just a ‘grab-and-go’ experience. He is considering setting up an outdoor section with picnic tables, lights and heaters for the cold weather approaching.
“I saw the way my dad’s business took off. It might have taken a little bit over a year,” Hurley said. “Advertisements and social media are big for that, so if we can get all that popping off, then I think the future could be bright.”