Last summer, food trucks lined Portland’s city streets. From the Old Port to Bayside, hungry throngs swarmed these mobile eateries for lobster rolls, quesadillas, burgers, doughnuts and more.
When winter descends, most food trucks go into hiding. Some hibernate in garages until spring, but increasingly, they are braving the ice-slicked streets. And business for these trendy, traveling canteens, despite the weather, is heating up.
“The summer is not long enough,” said Lauren Dallam, who spent the last two winters flipping crepes at Moosehead Lake. This winter she’s test-driving Portland. “In Maine if you want to make it you have to go year round.”
Several days a week, the 27-year-old hitches her rolling kitchen to her pickup, packs a shovel and sets up Cafe Crepe outside Tandem Coffee Roasters in East Bayside. On Thursdays, she motors to Allagash Brewing Co. headquarters, located in an industrial park distanced from gourmet lunch options.
“You have to stay consistent and keep doing what you are doing. People need to rely on you and you have to be there when you say you will be there,” said Dallam.
As with any outdoor business, making it in Maine in the dead of winter is fraught with challenges.
“In the summer you can’t keep things cold enough, in the winter I have my Nutella in hot water. Everything needs to thaw first thing in the morning,” she said.
Staying warm in a 1977 Grumman truck that can dip to dangerous temperatures takes moxie.
Last month, Valeri and Kevin Sandes relocated their Urban Sugar Mobile Cafe from Portland to Sugarloaf Mountain.
“When we had the opportunity we took it. It’s good for the business to grow a bit,” said Valeri Sandes, who started selling gourmet minidoughnuts at the Portland-Flea-for-All in October.
Setting up her Grumman at the ski mountain’s base lodge has been a smart move. Five days a week she sells maple-glazed doughnuts topped with Allen’s Coffee Brandy buttercream frosting to well-bundled skiers who dip them into hot, fresh coffee.
Finding a captive audience eager for energy and flush with cash has proven profitable.
“So far we have done very well,” she said.
Her biggest challenge?
“Keep the water from freezing.” That means space heaters pumping all night long in the truck named Rosie.
Working with ingredients such as buttercream in an area known for fierce winds can be problematic.
“It easily freezes in pastry bags. It’s a constant battle figuring out ways to keep it from getting too cold or too warm,” said Valeri. “It can get down to 15 [degrees] in the truck.”
But dealing with the elements is a fair trade-off for brisk sales and growing name recognition for this tiny startup.
“We knew coming into the winter we would face challenges,” said Valeri, adding that getting products delivered slope-side takes longer, too. “We feel very welcome. Sugarloaf has been awesome.”
In Bangor, hopes ride high with the advent of fried pork and chicken cutlets served aboard Schnitzel’s Austrian Grill. The food truck opened Tuesday in the Kmart parking lot near the Bangor Mall. A new venture for the owners of Cielos Mexican Grill offers stick-to-your-ribs fare, and according to their website, Cielos is slated to reopen in April.
For some food truckers winter is not worth it. Portland’s popular Small Axe Truck powered down the week before Christmas.
“When it gets brutally cold like this, the business just drops off,” said co-owner Bill Leavy. “No one wants to stand outside and get food.”
After a successful summer and fall, serving gourmet egg sandwiches in East Bayside and lunch on Congress Street by City Hall, “the draw isn’t there. It’s more seasonal. People don’t come out and look for it when it’s colder,” said Leavy, who along with his partner Karl Deuben is taking a break and going back to restaurant jobs until spring.
To accommodate those who are venturing out, some operators are getting crafty.
Besides offering warming soups loaded with chiles, Mexican food truck El Corazon encourages customers to text in their order “so it’s waiting for them nice and hot when they get here,” said co-owner April Garcia.
To Garcia, shuttering her business until the weather cooperates doesn’t make sense. And leaving town would kill her momentum.
“Our customers are loyal to us, so we have to be loyal to them,” she said.
Though fewer hardy souls traipse about during a polar vortex, Garcia said business has only tapered off 10 percent this winter.
“People still have to eat even though it’s Maine and it’s cold,” said Garcia, who fed 50 downtown office workers on a chilly Friday last week.
Plus “the truck doesn’t make any money if it’s sitting in the garage.”