Austin, TX: If It’s 105 Outside, How Hot is it Inside a Food Trailer?

Eric Lepold, co-owner of Henry's ATX, puts up an awning to provide shade around his food truck before lunch Thursday. Laura Skelding /AMERICAN-STATESMAN


Eric Lepold, co-owner of Henry's ATX, puts up an awning to provide shade around his food truck before lunch Thursday. Laura Skelding /AMERICAN-STATESMAN

If you think it’s hot standing outside one of Austin’s many food trailers these days, try cooking inside one.

Even with an air conditioning unit and two fans, by 2 p.m. it’s too hot to touch the countertops inside Henry’s ATX, a blue food truck that sells flatbread pizzas and sandwiches in the parking lot of an auto repair shop at 2617 S. First St.

“We can do breakfast and lunch, but we haven’t been able to be open for dinner because of the heat and the way the truck faces,” co-owner Meredith Lepold said.

To provide shade for both customers and staff, Henry’s ATX has added a large awning on the side of the truck. (How much does a custom awning go for these days? “We haven’t gotten the bill yet,” Lepold said.)

“Everybody is struggling, because nobody wants to sit outside,” Lepold said. “People are going to the tried-and-true place, not really venturing out to sit and experience a new food truck.”

But the heat can be just as unrelenting on brick-and-mortar restaurants, especially those with large outdoor seating areas.

“Almost 60 percent of our seating is outdoors, and this heat has taken it away,” said Victor Farnsworth, general manager of El Arbol, the South American restaurant at 3411 Glenview Ave. Even with $5,000 worth of oscillating fans, it’s not cool enough to eat outside until about 8 p.m., Farnsworth said.

Adding misters would have doubled the cost, but Farnsworth said lightly spraying guests with water doesn’t really go with the ambience and caliber of the restaurant, so for now, he’s seating everyone indoors until the temperature drops into the 90s.

At Contigo, a 3-month-old restaurant off Airport Boulevard and Manor Road in East Austin, almost all the seats are outside.

“We knew this is what we were getting into by building a mostly outside restaurant,” owner Ben Edgerton said. “It’s going to be cold and hot. It’s going to rain.”

Three weeks ago, Edgerton added a misting system to the fans and pushed the opening time back an hour, to 5 p.m., so more of the patio is shaded, even if the temperature hasn’t started to drop. “The biggest struggle is our staff, because they are out in the heat for their whole shift.”

Freddie’s Place, the casual restaurant on South First Street that feels more like a backyard than a burger joint, is making a pretty sweet lemonade out of this lemon of a summer with the help of half-price burgers and $2 margaritas every day the forecast calls for temperatures above 100 degrees.

“We are beating last year’s sales,” manager Patrick Hobbie said. “With a restaurant that’s mostly outside seating, that’s our way of getting people through the door.”

Peached Tortilla, a food trailer that operates at various locations around the city, is also doing well this summer, despite the heat. “We had our busiest lunch ever” recently, owner Eric Silverstein said. “We don’t have AC in the truck, so we’re drenched in sweat, but the heat hasn’t really affected our business. We had a line 20 deep for lunch.”

Lunch service usually ends at 1:45 p.m., which means Silverstein and staff are cleaning the truck during the hottest part of the day. “That’s the toughest part.”

Peached Tortilla doesn’t open for dinner until 7 p.m., and Silverstein said evenings are when brick-and-mortar restaurants really have an advantage this time of year, because people want to sit down and enjoy their food rather than pick it up and head back to the office or eat it quickly in the shade.

Sam Raver, who co-owns Wurst Tex on South Congress Avenue, says sales are down 25 to 30 percent from this spring. He expected a dip in sales because of the heat, but in an attempt to try to bring some customers back, he added a large shade cloth a few weeks ago. (After he found a supplier, that is. The first few places he tried had a waiting list of up to five weeks.)

The shade cloth might protect customers from the heat, but he and his fiancée are stuck in a truck that heats up quickly, despite the air conditioning. “We much prefer winter,” Raver said. “We could use the fryer and stove and oven for warmth and comfort. It’s not like we can keep the fridge door open long enough to cool the truck down.”

But one thing that keeps Raver motivated is a piece of advice that someone gave him and his business partners when they were just getting started.

“‘If you can make it through a summer, you can make it year-round,’ they said. ‘Not only does business drop, but good luck working in a metal box all day,'” Raver said.