New Haven’s ‘Food Truck Paradise’ making comeback from pandemic slump

NEW HAVEN — Damian Morales supports himself and his extended family both in Greater New Haven and back home in Mexico, largely with the living he and other family members make at three food trucks parked most days along Long Wharf Drive.

All of Morales’ Santa Ines trucks on the highly-visible stretch of the Interstate 95 frontage road that has become known as “Food Truck Paradise” were shut down — like all the other food trucks and carts in the city — for three or four months last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But they’re back, along with Morales’ Santa Ines Taqueria at 691 Howard Ave. near Yale New Haven Hospital in the city’s Hill section. Morales’ mother runs one truck, his brother runs one and his aunt runs another.

Customers at the Ixtapa Mexican food truck on Long Wharf Drive in New Haven Aug. 6, 2021.

Customers at the Ixtapa Mexican food truck on Long Wharf Drive in New Haven Aug. 6, 2021.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

Both the food trucks and the restaurant are named after Santa Ines Zacatelco, the town in the state of Tlaxcala in east central Mexico where Morales, who lives in West Haven, grew up. Part of his family still lives there.

On any given day, and especially on weekends down at Long Wharf, you can find everything from hot dogs to Mexican tacos, enchiladas, cocteles de camarones and elotes (roast corn); to Puerto Rican pinchos; Cuban sandwiches; southern-style barbecue, and even Caribbean-accented pizza.

Like everyone else with food trucks and carts at Long Wharf, on Cedar Street opposite Yale New Haven Hospital and downtown, they’re all trying to make a go of it during tough times.

Maggie Wei and her husband, Gino, have run a Chinese food cart on Cedar Street near Yale New Haven Hospital and the Yale School of Medicine for 22 years.

Maggie Wei and her husband, Gino, have run a Chinese food cart on Cedar Street near Yale New Haven Hospital and the Yale School of Medicine for 22 years.

Mark Zaretsky / Hearst Connecticut Media

But while business often rages on Long Wharf Drive on weekends, it generally is down — especially during the week — and some of the city’s rules have changed, requiring trucks to close by 6:30 p.m.

Some trucks used to stay open until 9 p.m. or even 10 p.m. in the pre-COVID days.

Some of Morales’ colleagues at Long Wharf said their business is one-half to one-third of what it was pre-pandemic, though Morales said he’s doing a little better than that.

“It’s growing, little by little,” said Morales, who bought his first truck eight years ago, opened at Long Wharf about five years ago and opened his little restaurant three years ago.

He and his 15 family members and other employees have managed to stay healthy through the pandemic, but “it was hard,” he said. “Now it’s better.”

Meanwhile, since COVID, “everything went up — the prices,” said Morales, 44. But “people don’t want to spend a lot of money,” he said.

In a competitive situation at Long Wharf — with at least three or four owners owning multiple trucks — Morales was charging $8 for certain dishes, but had to drop his price by $1 after a competitor started serving the same item for $7, he said.

The city Health Department’s inspectors, who used to stop by only occasionally, now come by just about every week to check temperatures, cleanliness and procedures, although Morales and other truck owners realize the importance of what the inspectors do and don’t seem to mind.

Robert Sweeney, 81, has operated his food truck at Long Wharf in New Haven with his brother Ed Sweeney, 83, since 1960.

Robert Sweeney, 81, has operated his food truck at Long Wharf in New Haven with his brother Ed Sweeney, 83, since 1960.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

A few trucks to the east of the bright yellow truck Morales was working in on Friday, Robert Sweeney, 81, and his brother, Ed, 83 — the deans of the Long Wharf food truck folks — were getting their “Sweeney’s Hot Dog King” truck ready for another day.

The Sweeneys have had a hot dog truck at Long Wharf since 1960 — and if you forget it, Robert Sweeney will remind you.

“I started this — I was the number one,” Sweeney said. “When I started, I couldn’t park here. It was water.

Robert Sweeney, 81, who has operated his food truck at Long Wharf in New Haven with his brother Ed Sweeney, 83, since 1960, Aug. 6, 2021.

Robert Sweeney, 81, who has operated his food truck at Long Wharf in New Haven with his brother Ed Sweeney, 83, since 1960, Aug. 6, 2021.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

“I watched them build the Q Bridge right from that traffic light,” he said, pointing toward Canal Dock Road and what used to be called the Quinnipiac River Bridge — now officially known as the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge — in the distance.

When Sweeney, who now lives in Woodbridge but works every day at Long Wharf, first drove his truck out there, “this was all dirt,” he said.

All that said, the pandemic “destroyed “ his business, Sweeney said. “Totally destroyed it all.”

Ed Sweeney, 83 who has operated his food truck with his brother, Robert Sweeney, 81, at Long Wharf in New Haven.

Ed Sweeney, 83 who has operated his food truck with his brother, Robert Sweeney, 81, at Long Wharf in New Haven.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

Because of the pandemic, the city had to shut down the parking areas adjacent to many of the trucks, and reopened them a few weeks ago, limiting parking for months, he said.

He said the city also has ticketed people who park nearby to buy food.

Sweeney asked, “Do you think that guy is gonna come back?”

Karla Lindquist, the city’s new director of transportation, traffic and parking, defended the ticketing, saying there often are so many vehicles parking along Long Wharf Drive that it presents a safety issue.

“Anytime someone is going to get a citation it’s because they’re parking illegally,” she said. “There’s also a (bicycle) track down there and people are obstructing the cycle track.

“Obstructing a cycle track or a cross walk … is a safety issue,” Lindquist said.

Director of Health Maritza Bond said that while the city slowed down its ongoing inspection program in recent months, the trucks at Long Wharf and trucks and carts elsewhere in the city are likely to get new visits from health inspectors after the city’s indoor mask mandate goes into effect Monday.

The health department will work with neighborhood specialists to make sure that people working in the trucks are properly masked and “to make sure that everyone is aware of the changes,” Bond said.

“I think we’re basically just reinstating the mask wearing, which everyone is accustomed to,” Bond said. The mask mandate doesn’t apply to customers outside the trucks, who will not be required to wear masks.

Tom and Karen Corell of Fairfield visit New Haven's Long Wharf food trucks Aug. 4, 2021.

Tom and Karen Corell of Fairfield visit New Haven’s Long Wharf food trucks Aug. 4, 2021.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

Geraldo de Leon, a native of Tapachula in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, works hard in his Sabor Mexico truck and said that while his business is about 40 percent of what it was pre-COVID, “it’s a little better than before.”

Unfortunately, the ingredients de Leon buys to make his food are “a little more expensive,” he said.

De Leon, who has lived for 17 years in New Haven, said he has owned the truck for about two years and works it with his wife and a friend, while continuing to send money home to his family in Chiapas, he said.

Just a little farther east of the Sweeneys’ and DeLeon’s trucks, Norma Feliciano was busy almost from the moment her family’s Winn Pinchos truck, which serves Puerto Rican pinchos (grilled meat on a stick), mofongos and salads — including conch, or carrucho, salad — opened in the morning.

While there definitely are fewer people than there were pre-COVID — Feliciano estimated business is down by 25 percent — the Winn Pinchos truck, one of the few trucks that serves solely Puerto Rican food, seems busier than most.

“It’s the Puerto Rican food,” Feliciano said. “Everyone loves Puerto Rican food.”

Over time, not coincidentally, some of the Mexican food trucks that make up the majority of the lineup at Long Wharf have added pinchos to what they serve. There even is one truck, Sandwiches El Cubano, that serves Cuban sandwiches, tacos and other Mexican treats as well as pinchos — one-stop shopping for any mixed groups or people who can’t make up their mind.

Winn’s Pinchos is only open from March through October, Feliciano said.

Steve Williams, owner of Jack's Hot Dogs, which usually sets up in front of the New Haven Superior Court building at Church and Elm streets in downtown New Haven, at a special event on Shelton Avenue Aug. 5, 2021.

Steve Williams, owner of Jack’s Hot Dogs, which usually sets up in front of the New Haven Superior Court building at Church and Elm streets in downtown New Haven, at a special event on Shelton Avenue Aug. 5, 2021.

Mark Zaretsky / Hearst Connecticut Media

She, too, has had complaints from customers about parking issues, “but there’s nothing we can do,” she said.

But the customers on Friday — some of whom were local and some passing by from at least as far away as New Jersey — weren’t complaining.

Norma Feliciano, who runs the Winn Pinchos food truck at Long Wharf, serving Puerto Rican food, Aug. 6, 2021.

Norma Feliciano, who runs the Winn Pinchos food truck at Long Wharf, serving Puerto Rican food, Aug. 6, 2021.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media

Long Wharf Drive is a very popular place for quick, inexpensive eats.

Barbara J. Miriam

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