As fallen leaves give way to fallen snow, patios get packed away, plants move indoors and sandals are shelved until next summer. The changing season also means it might be harder to find your favorite local food truck.
It’s no secret that Iowa winters can be brutal. Temperatures dip well below freezing for weeks on end and roads become slick with snow and ice, not to mention the occasional polar vortex or two. So it makes sense that by and large these mobile eateries tend to shut down when things freeze. But much like their delicious offerings, when they call it quits for the year — and how they’ve learned to hang in there — varies from truck to truck.
For local vegan food truck Veggie Thumper, the season typically comes to a close in the early part of December, weather permitting. Owner Lyssa Wade says you might see the popular purveyor of vegan soul snacks at a pop-up or special event during the colder months, but maneuvering the colorful school bus-turned-mobile-kitchen on icy roads isn’t something she likes to do.
Now that Wade has a few winters under her belt, she says that her cold weather process is a well-oiled machine. But it didn’t start that way in 2019.
“When the first winter hit was when it got super real,” Wade told Little Village. “I’d read that the water line shouldn’t freeze because it was blocked from the wind, but that was a lie.”
Even though it had been drained, the bus’s water line froze, blowing off the faucet heads and cracking the case on the water pump. So Wade did what most entrepreneurs do and turned to YouTube to figure out how to repair her water line and keep serving hungry fans.
After learning from what others have done, Wade said she lined everything in heat tape. Then she plugged every crack and hole she could find to ensure that the bus stayed warm enough to keep her equipment from freezing. Still, the experience of spending time on the bus in the colder months isn’t an enjoyable one.
“Even if it’s 40 degrees outside, that means it’s freezing in the bus,” she said. “The service window creates a big vortex to suck in cold air.”
While Wade says the metro may have a few long-haulers who stick out the cold, Veggie Thumper isn’t alone in its decision to close down when the Iowa weather begins to turn. Dave Barry, owner and operator of the burger- and sandwich-focused food truck Top Bun, says that his typical season runs from roughly March through October.
“I learned early on that owning and operating a food truck is way more difficult and time consuming than most people would ever imagine,” Barry said.
For Top Bun, the danger to the truck’s equipment and the safety risk to its staff are enough to keep it parked until the spring thaw.
“We would love to be open year round, but we have experienced issues in the past that make opening in the winter very challenging,” Barry said. “Our plumbing system which is essential for operation needs to be winterized or it can freeze up and cause costly repairs.”
Like Wade, Barry has firsthand experience with water lines freezing, and even had a water heater crack a couple of years ago when the truck opened on a day that was too cold for their equipment to handle.
“That was a learning lesson as well so we try not to push it too much as far as the end of the season goes,” he added.
But business owners in the food industry are used to having to learn as they go, especially after the last few years. Barry shared that the pandemic has also changed how many local food trucks, including his own, operate.
“Since COVID started, a large portion of what we do has been private events, whether that be graduation parties, corporate events, weddings, block parties and more,” Barry said.
Like the pop-ups and special events Veggie Thumper also participates in, these are often opportunities to bolster the truck’s business and attract new customers. In addition to their loyal fans and frequent visitors, Barry said that Des Moines’ food truck community has another strength: each other.
“I found that the food truck community is very welcoming and there are so many helpful people out there,” he said. “We do not look at other food trucks as competitors, we look at them as friends, and that has made a world of difference for us. I’ve spent countless hours in person or on phone calls with other local food truck owners, new and seasoned vets, giving advice and taking advice.”
Keeping an eye on their websites and social media will be the easiest way to find your favorite truck, especially in the shoulder season. If you want to support your favorite truck, even in the off season, both Wade and Barry recommend buying gift certificates and stocking up so you can enjoy your favorite eats come spring.
Some of Top Bun’s private event customers have already gone one step further and started booking their 2023 events. Not only does booking early ensure that your favorite food truck is available for your desired date, but it also helps the truck fare through the winter months. Talk about a win-win.
This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 009.