Taking a Detour

Local Food Trucks Adapt to an Industry Radically Altered By Covid-19

“We’re trying to adjust and adapt. It’s nothing like it used to be.”

By Cooper Levey-Baker September 22, 2020 Published in the September-October 2020 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Polpo Pizza Co. at The Sarasota Modern hotel

Polpo Pizza Co. at The Sarasota Modern hotel

Since launching their mobile pizza operation Polpo Pizza Co. in 2014, Danni Bleil and Tom Baril have won a ravenous local following thanks to their pies, some of Sarasota’s best. On multiple occasions, the pair has come oh-so-close to signing the paperwork to finally open a restaurant, but something has always held them back. Now, amid the shutdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, that hesitancy looks like foresight.

“We always had an endgame where we were looking to transition into a brick and mortar,” Bleil says. “I’m really grateful that that transition hasn’t happened yet.”

With no rent, no full-time staff and minimal expenses, Polpo has survived a rough year, at least so far. Beginning in March, the company (which is technically licensed as a caterer, not a food truck) lost every single one of its catering engagements, which had provided the bulk of its revenue in recent years.

Polpo's Tom Baril and Danni Bleil

Polpo's Tom Baril and Danni Bleil

As of July, Polpo had only two private events left on the books: a wedding in October and a Christmas party in December.

With nuptials, corporate events and birthday parties postponed, Polpo has shifted to focus on selling directly to the public. Bleil began posting more to Polpo’s social media accounts, built a new online ordering system and connected with businesses like Mandeville Beer Garden, Seagrape Wine Co., Swim City and The Sarasota Modern hotel, all of which have hosted the Polpo truck. The shift has helped keep Polpo afloat during a time when many restaurants are struggling or even closing. But the change is still a stopgap measure.

“We are surviving,” Bleil says. “We are not thriving.”

Food trucks are increasingly attractive to aspiring chefs. The upfront cost of launching a truck is still well below that of opening a restaurant, and customers who are wary of the coronavirus are increasingly looking for grab-and-go options. Most food trucks are also more affordable than sit-down restaurants, which adds to their appeal at a time when tens of millions of Americans are out of work because of the pandemic.
Multiple new food trucks have hit our streets in recent months. Hamlet’s Eatery makes tacos, wings and sliders, while Big Blue Grilled Cheese Company specializes in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.

A bowl from the new food truck Savor 100x35

A bowl from the new food truck Savor 100x35.

North Port’s Antonio Pereira opened Savor 100x35, a Puerto Rican food truck, after he was laid off as a server at Sarasota’s Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse last spring. He makes bowls that mix flavors from Puerto Rico and around Latin America and the Caribbean. Pereira had nursed plans for the truck for a long time before the pandemic hit. When he lost his job, he threw himself into the new venture and quickly found hundreds of fans.

“We’re trying to adjust and adapt,” Pereira says. “It’s nothing like it used to be.”

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