It’s late afternoon on May 23, and Benoit Angulo is driving La Cocinita’s distinctive red food truck down the streets of Evanston. The co-owner of the restaurant began event preparations with his crew hours ago, loading up the truck with arepas, salsa and guacamole and checking the vehicle’s propane and gas. But instead of heading to a large venue, where many of their pre-pandemic events were held, he turns down a neighborhood street and parks in front of the catering location: a house where a 20-person graduation party is taking place. For Angulo and his wife, Rachel, co-owners of Evanston’s Venezuelan-inspired restaurant La Cocinita, this is the new normal as they navigate running a restaurant in a global pandemic.
In the past year, COVID-19 has taken a steep toll on the restaurant industry. The National Restaurant Association estimates that 110,000 restaurants permanently or temporarily closed in 2020, and industry sales were $240 billion below expected levels for the year. In order to survive, restaurants have been forced to adjust their operations to promote public health and safety. In La Cocinita’s case, this meant halting indoor dining and relying on delivery, takeout and catering to keep their doors open. Especially in the early months of the pandemic, the Angulos struggled with a sharp plunge in patronage.
“During the pandemic, there were days when we only had 10 orders — $100 in the register from all day,” Benoit says. “Oh my god, I’m so glad we’re not there anymore.”
La Cocinita’s food truck has been particularly helpful in keeping the business afloat during the pandemic, as it can serve food at socially distanced outdoor events in a safe manner. Though the size of events has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, the truck is now catering as many as 15 events a week and sometimes up to three events a day.Benoit Angulo and La Cocinita employee Carlos Martinez take orders and prepare meals in the food truck.
For the Angulos, catering is nothing new — La Cocinita got its start in 2011 as a food truck in New Orleans. Benoit pitched the idea to Rachel, inspired by the rows of food trucks that would congregate in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela, on the street known as the Calle del Hambre, or “street of hunger.”
“During the pandemic, there were days when we only had 10 orders — $100 in the register from all day.”La Cocinita owner Benoit Angulo
When the couple moved to Wilmette in 2014 to start a family closer to their relatives, they established another food truck to serve the Chicago area, in addition to their New Orleans-based truck. In 2016, they opened their first storefront on Chicago Avenue. Because of the restaurant’s roots in grab-and-go dining, the transition away from indoor service in the past year has been relatively smooth.
“This is the way that we envisioned La Cocinita from the get-go,” Benoit says. “We always knew we wanted to be in that fast-casual middle range, with boxes of food and paper trays from the food truck.”
At the graduation event, Benoit worked on the truck with crew member Carlos Martinez to serve party-goers. Benoit says the crew on the truck is usually no more than two or three people – one taking orders, another cooking and a third garnishing the food or helping with other tasks.
The menu for each event depends on the client, who picks from entrees including tacos, rice and bean bowls, arepas, quesadillas and patacones. The food is prepped prior to the event, and then everything is cooked to order on the truck. The restaurant’s most popular menu item is its “El Pabellon” arepas. Inspired by the Venezuelan National Dish, it includes brisket, black beans, sweet plantains, queso fresco and cremita.
In addition to catered events, the Angulos have used the food truck to help the community. Last year, La Cocinita started a partnership with Connections for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that has provided housing aid and resources to those facing homelessness and housing insecurity during the pandemic. Customers ordering food through the restaurant’s website can add a donated meal to their order, and when a substantial number of meals are reached, the Angulos hold a partnered event with the organization. Since the pandemic began, La Cocinita has donated over 10,000 meals to Connections for the Homeless, nonprofit organizations and frontline healthcare workers. The restaurant’s decision to donate meals was in part led by Rachel’s previous career as a social worker.
“Being able to weave in the nonprofit aspect of my original passion with what we do now has been really meaningful to me,” Rachel says. “If we could sustain our businesses in a way where we did a lot of donated meals and nonprofit partnerships and that kind of thing alongside what we do typically, that would be our ideal business model.”
Benoit and Rachel have also noticed the community rallying around their restaurant with the increase in awareness about the importance of supporting local businesses during the pandemic. Providing masks and other PPE to workers, as well as increasing wages in response to labor shortages, have caused business costs to rise, Benoit says. With these additional expenses, he appreciates the extra support from customers.
“People are seeing some of their favorite restaurants and businesses closing, so they understand the need to support them,” Rachel says.Towers of takeout boxes line the restaurant’s kitchen and dining area, as La Cocinita has shifted its operations to delivery and takeout only.
Indoor dining at La Cocinita is not likely to return for the remainder of the year, Benoit says. But as reopening efforts increase nationwide, the restaurant has already seen an uptick in orders and events. The couple is also excited at the prospect of continuing the nonprofit partnerships they picked up during the pandemic.
“If we could sustain our businesses in a way where we did a lot of donated meals and nonprofit partnerships and that kind of thing alongside what we do typically, that would be our ideal business model.”La Cocinita owner Rachel Angulo
The Angulos are optimistic about the future of La Cocinita and eager to return to normal operations. They miss making connections with customers, welcoming newcomers to the restaurant and serving regulars their usuals.
“My favorite thing is just getting to share our story with people and getting to hear more about their stories,” Rachel says. “[I miss] developing that relationship.”Benoit Angulo hands a churro to a customer from La Cocinita’s food truck.