Though the setup is different from before, Hangry Panda’s food truck continues dishing up Asian fusion fare to hungry diners during the pandemic.
Photo courtesy of Hangry Panda
It’s no secret that times are tough across the restaurant industry nationwide. With the covid-19 pandemic and all the ensuing shutdowns and social distancing phases that go along with it, every business in the space has been forced to pivot – and, often, pivot again (and again).
And just like their brick-and-mortar brethren, food trucks are suffering, too. Trucks like the Hangry Panda, which was settling into its second year of life, have been set back on their heels by the pandemic – and are struggling to recover.
“It’s a very, very tough quest,” said Hangry Panda owner Vinh Tran. Last year, Tran said, business was humming along as the Hangry Panda found itself at home around the region, dishing up Vietnamese meals to hungry businesspeople and residents alike.
But now the businesspeople are working from home, and the residents are staying inside. Tran has pivoted his locations to more apartments and residential communities to make up the shortfall.
“It’s really tough, though. The thing is you have to control your own destiny, with not having any steady place to rent anymore,” he said.
Tran, the owner and chef, has a long history as a hibachi chef and has taken those skills and fused them with Vietnamese and Asian fusion fare to create a robust menu of treats ranging from a variety of pho to tacos to small bites and more. Since the pandemic, the truck has offered online ordering to keep lines manageable and personal contact to a minimum.
Tran says the fluctuation in the quantity of customers at any given time has been a new challenge to maneuver. Sometimes, an event – at a winery, say – that is expecting 350 people only brings in 100. Sometimes customers preorder their food at a set time and don’t show up for another hour. These challenges are new 2020-style difficulties – but Tran says the world will have to continue facing them for a long while to come.
“This is not something that goes away. If there’s no foot traffic, there’s no people walking around in D.C., it’s a different lifestyle now. I don’t think it will ever go back to the way it was. Ever.”
But, Tran says, there are some silver linings amidst the stress.
“The neighborhoods are very, very kind. Most people are very kind. When you tell them ‘we’re behind on rent, please support us,’ they come out,” he said. “The humanity side of people is still there. They just have to dig really, really deep because they are struggling too.”
“I feel lucky,” he said. “I believe that no matter what happens, people still have to eat.”
His truck’s job is to make sure the community is fed before they go from hungry to hangry – that is, angry-hungry.
“When they get really, really hangry, they come to us. That’s why we’re here.”
And as for navigating these unprecedented times, Tran says there’s really just one option open to him and his business.
“There’s no other plan other than keep going,” he said. “There’s no other avenue.”
Hope Nelson is the author of “Classic Restaurants of Alexandria” and owns the Kitchen Recessionista blog, located at www.kitchenrecessionista.com. Email her any time at email@example.com.