June 6, 2012
BOSTON — Food trucks have come to Paris and they've come to Boston. Next up? If Paris wasn't unexpected enough, the food world's hottest phenomenon is moving into the suburbs.
A trend in the city
Stroll through the Financial District, Kendall Square or Cleveland Circle at lunchtime and you will see long lines forming around trucks pulled up to the curbs. The queue of people reflects the diverse, multi-ethnic menus scrawled on the chalkboards. Suits stand behind foreign students in well-worn T-shirts and moms balance their takeout containers on the hoods of strollers while fishing for change.
“I love them," said one customer. "There used to be the fear of the 'roach coach' but these places are really high-quality and they’re also generally cheaper than any of the offerings around here.”
On any given day food trucks line up on city streets, offering a bold variety that competes with brick-and-mortar counterparts. At one truck, for $5, you can get Sichuan asparagus with a slow-poached egg. At another truck, for $3, you can chow down on a taco filled with Chinese sausage, fried rice and black bean mayo.
Yes, gourmet cuisine has gone mobile — and now other cities and towns in Massachusetts want a bite. The Town of Brookline just launched a pilot program for food trucks offering more lunchtime options for workers and residents, and if all goes well, food trucks will shift into park permanently.
“I think the public is fascinated by food trucks,” said Anne-Marie Aigner. So fascinated that it’s going above and beyond the city limits.
Truckin' past the city line
Aigner is the founder of the Food Truck Festivals of New England. A couple of years ago, she saw how the food truck phenomenon was barreling its way over from Los Angeles and thought: Why not make a destination event out of it? Instead of having food trucks pulled up at events like the Head of the Charles or outdoor concerts, you could flip that around and make the food trucks the main event. That means a caravan of food trucks will amble their way to towns like Framingham, Falmouth, Salem, N.H., and Newport, R.I.
“People are interested in the fact that you don’t have to go into a restaurant and sit down to have a good bite," said Aigner.
People like Rick Rushton.
A plan in central Mass.
“I look at what’s happened over the past 4 to 5 years with urban cuisine on the go — to the desktop, to the laptop and now to the iPad. And people’s accessibility to food, and to good food, has really transformed itself,” he said.
Rushton is a Worcester city councilor. In this city, food trucks were banned a few years ago, after a heated battle between the brick-and-mortar restaurant and food truck industries resulted in a 6-5 City Council vote that left food trucks packing. Rushton is hoping that by bringing the Food Truck Festival to Worcester on July 14, fellow councilors will warm up to the idea of getting rid of the ban.
“I’m hoping that most of the city councilors are going to head down to the festival, see where the food truck revolution has gone," he said.
If you can't beat them …
Tension between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants is nothing new. Some restaurants see food trucks as a threat, especially if they’re parked a little too close by for comfort. But one Somerville restaurant saw the competition as an opportunity.
“My initial take was hey, we want to get in on that action," said Rob Gregory, co-owner of the landmark barbecue restaurant Redbones in Davis Square. Redbones wheeled out its own truck when Gregory saw that this was not just a flash in the pan.
“Competition is good," Gregory said. "It keeps us all on our toes and keeps the quality of food up and quality of service for the customer. It’s all about trying to have something that people want. This is one of the most exciting times for experiments in the food service business. You can innovate and if it doesn’t work, you can try something else.”
Other restaurants are hitting the pavement as well. Even fast food chains like Burger King have launched their own fleets of trucks across the country.
“The word is getting out," Aigner said. "It’s becoming increasingly popular with existing brick-and-mortar restaurants, and the flip of that is it’s a great entry point for somebody who’s interested in getting into the restaurant business, but can’t afford $300,000 – $400,000 to build a restaurant." It takes more like $25,000 – $50,000 to start a restaurant on wheels.
Starting from the street up
Mei Li of Mei Mei Street Kitchen agreed. "The idea is to start small with the food truck and experiment with the different ingredients and have a rotating menu so we try lots of new things and let our customers try new food," she said.
Mei and her siblings Andy and Irene bought their truck this spring as their first entrepreneurial step into the food service business. The Mei Mei Street Kitchen menu exemplifies the diverse palate of second-generation Asian Americans with items like a scallion pancake sandwich with braised beef and blue cheese. She even joked about their food being Chinese food with cheese.
“We think that it’s a unique opportunity to be able to bring real food to areas that sometimes don’t often offer that for people who work everyday and are faced with the same choices," Li said. "If you’ve got a different food truck every day in front of your office, you get to try new things and have real food brought to your doorstep. We think that’s really cool.”
Other cities and towns think it’s cool, too. And they’ll get a taste of the food truck experience en masse throughout the summer in various towns and cities in the New England area. For a $30 entry ticket, people will be able to eat from over 20 trucks.
“Somebody out west of Worcester called and yelled at us," Aigner said. "We get calls every day. Why did you stop in Worcester? How come you didn’t come to Springfield? What about the Berkshires? How about West Hartford?”
The downside of success is that everyone wants a piece of it … or a plate.
There are 10 food truck festivals scheduled for this year, starting with an event at the UMass Boston campus on Sunday, June 10. Get the complete list.