Ajumama food truck nearing one year since pandemic pivot to carry-out kitchen
Owner Laura Lee describes the anxious early days of COVID and her ongoing pivot to Korean street food carry-out kitchen at the Food Fort.
Like many food trucks, Ajumama doesn’t pop up around town quite as often over the winter. In fact, chef-owner Laura Lee usually takes most of the winter off. So in early March of 2020, after hibernating for a few months, Lee was just beginning to gear up for spring, booking the first Ajumama event for March 20.
Murmurs of the novel coronavirus were growing louder, though, and when the Arnold Sports Festival was forced to cancel, Lee knew 2020 was going to be a challenging year. Soon, entire office buildings, in front of which food trucks would often park during lunch hours, were emptied out, their employees sent home for months on end. All outdoor festivals, a financial boon to so many food trucks, were canceled.
In the early days of the pandemic, food trucks were still allowed to operate, so Lee fulfilled her March 20 obligation. “The stress from that one day, and the financial impact from that one day... I was like, ‘I can't do this. Everything else I've got on this schedule is getting canceled,’” Lee said recently by phone.
Plus, even though food trucks are outdoors and easier for social distancing than traditional restaurants, Lee didn’t want to risk the health of herself, her parents, her one employee or anyone else connected to them.
“It was very stressful, because they didn't know how it was transmitted. Nobody knew what was going on. All you were hearing were these medical horror stories. … My dad is a doctor. My mom is a nurse. I know what happens when you get intubated. ... I knew this was very serious and that I was not going to screw around with it,” said Lee, who filled her days doomscrolling and brainstorming. “How can we survive? How can we do this and keep ourselves safe and keep other people safe? That was a couple of weeks of crying and eating potato chips.”
Lee knew she didn’t want to get involved with third-party delivery services, which take a hefty percentage of a restaurant’s profits. But she began seeing more and more places offering carry-out options, often in family-size portions, and she wondered if she could come up with a similar system for Ajumama’s Korean street food.
In April, Lee gave it a shot, setting up at the Food Fort and transforming her mobile restaurant into a stationary cloud kitchen with just an email list and a folding table. “I ask people to send an email [to email@example.com] with permission to put them on the list. Then there is [an emailed menu] that goes out late Sunday night, or sometimes really early Monday morning. They have until Tuesday at midnight to order,” Lee said. “Pickup is either Friday or Saturday, and people tell me their preferred times. And I do delivery. Just tell me when and tell me what works for you and I'll make it happen.”
Nearly a year later, Ajumama is still operating under this contact-less system. Lee shops on Wednesdays, preps on Thursdays and cooks and distributes on Friday and Saturday. Using that system, she always knows beforehand how much food to buy and how many hours of labor the meals will require.
Lee has also branched out from Ajumama’s Korean-inspired cuisine. In the early days, some of that variety was a direct result of her mood. “It was like, ‘I miss my friends and I just want to eat curry.’ Well, why don't I just make curry? It was kind of born out of that depression. I wanted comfort food,” she said.
Supply was another issue early on. Some of Restaurant Depot’s shelves were empty. So Lee got creative, altering her menu from week to week and experimenting with vegetarian options. “A lot of the stuff I've done is stuff that you would never see at [Ajumama’s food truck]: Cajun food, tamales, things like that,” she said. “I've gotten the chance to do a lot of recipe development, playing around with different things. So hopefully, going forward, we can have some new items.”
Silver livings aside, Lee is anxious to get back to the mobile mode of Ajumama, though she doesn’t foresee making the switch any time soon. Many office buildings are still empty, and some of the large Columbus festivals have already canceled their summer events, which sets the tone for the smaller fests.
“I have to be extra cautious from a health standpoint. Yes, we are in the truck, and we are separated from people by more than six feet. But you've got people who are outside ordering, and there’s the full-time management of people to not congregate,” said Lee, who has been disappointed with the way restaurant industry groups have seemed to stress staying open over public safety, and by how many restaurants have been offering indoor dining. “I understand that everybody's got to do what they feel is best for their mental health and their well-being. There's been times where I've been really upset because I really want to go out. I really want to eat food that I didn't make. But at the same time, it's very scary. The lack of understanding from people about all of this is very scary, and the lack of compassion from a lot of people is very scary, as well.”
After such a tough year for restaurants, Lee is hopeful that when it’s safe to return to normal dining, customers will have a greater appreciation for their favorite eateries, which already operate on tight profit margins. And she’s forever grateful to the people who have helped keep Ajumama afloat during its pandemic pivot.
“I've got a great core group of customers that have been absolutely amazing. Some people order every single week, and I appreciate that so much. I know not everybody can. I know financially it's been difficult for everybody, but it’s really meant a lot to me,” Lee said. “You either get into this out of necessity, or you get into it out of the love of making things for people and making people happy, making their hearts happy. And there's been a lot of that this year. That's probably been my favorite part, and the part I've been hanging on to.”