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Boston Food Truck Operators Struggling, Frustrated By Regulations

Food trucks at the SoWa Open Market in Boston's South End (firesika/Flickr)

Since the City of Boston started licensing food trucks eight months ago, 19 operators have signed up in a flurry of excitement.

But one of them recently fired off an open letter to City Hall, saying: “Despite the media portrayal that the food truck industry in Boston is thriving, the reality is that the city hasn’t implemented a system that will allow food trucks to succeed.”

So I went to find out how Boston’s food trucks are faring through their first winter.

‘An Impossible Year To Get Through’

Back in 2003, Patrick Gilmartin and Adam Gendreau were working the line at Rialto in Cambridge, trying to one-up each other with the creative staff meals they’d cook for themselves after service.

I visited them recently. They were selling General Tso’s duck tongue tacos on Stuart Street from the truck they now own together, the aptly named Staff Meal.

“It’s been a little slow today,” Gendreau says with a twinge. “It’s a little cold out. You know, I think people got used to the nice 50-degree days.”

It’s no surprise that winter is bad for food trucks. But for Gendreau, it’s been worse than he ever imagined.

“If the business stays the same, you know, 2012 could be an impossible year to get through,” he says.

Radio Boston co-host Anthony Brooks orders lunch at the Clover Food Truck on Commonwealth Avenue Wednesday. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

Radio Boston co-host Anthony Brooks orders lunch at the Clover Food Truck on Commonwealth Avenue Wednesday. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

And he doesn’t just blame the weather. In that open letter he wrote, Gendreau begged Boston regulators to set aside more parking spots for food trucks in the only neighborhood he says has been profitable for him: Back Bay.

Edith Murnane, director of food initiatives for the city and a former restaurateur, is sympathetic to Staff Meal’s struggle. But she has competing interests to consider.

“Parking spaces are a public amenity,” she says. “And so to take away a public amenity for a public enterprise, [that] has to be balanced, because there are lots of people vying for that space.”

Presently there are 16 street spots dedicated for food truck use in Boston. Not all operators are clamoring for more, though. Some just want them allocated differently.

Wheels Vs. Brick And Mortar

While the Staff Meal guys shiver in their truck, Ayr Muir of Clover Food Lab sits in an office above his flagship brick and mortar restaurant in Harvard Square, lording over a budding empire of food trucks.

He’s not worried about going out of business this year.

Most of his trucks operate in Cambridge, and he says they average six times the business of his one truck that uses city spots in Boston. (Cambridge licensed a handful of trucks before issuing a moratorium last year, pending the creation of a regulatory system to handle the influx of prospective operators. Those that got in under the wire operate with much freedom and little competition.)

Muir is frustrated that Boston won’t let him stake out a permanent breakfast, lunch and dinner presence. He’s supposed to move the truck around, and share spots with other operators.

“I think a doughnut truck, a cookie truck, can do really well without a day-to-day presence, because they’re really exciting,” Muir explains. “You see it, you jump, you want to buy it.” But for more healthy food, like the kind Clover offers, Muir says he relies on regular customers, and therefore requires a regular location.

A sign marks a reserved food truck space on Commonwealth Avenue. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

A sign marks a reserved food truck space on Commonwealth Avenue. (Adam Ragusea/WBUR)

Murnane is quick to point out that she is currently allowing Muir to operate for breakfast and lunch every weekday at the same spot on Commonwealth Avenue near the BU Bridge.

“That’s pretty consistent,” she says. Having said that, Murnane emphasizes she’s trying keep food trucks from resembling brick and mortar restaurants. “When you are at a location for eight hours a day, five days a week, you begin to look like — and compete with — the food establishments as if you were a bricks and mortar [restaurant],” she says.

“Have you gotten complaints from restaurant owners?” I ask.

“One or two,” she says. I say it doesn’t sound like a lot to me.

“No,” it’s not, she concedes. But she wants to keep it that way. Murnane says her office has been able to nip conflicts in the bud by keeping the trucks circulating and trying to avoid obvious competition, like, say, having a cupcake truck in front of a bakery.

Golden Clusters

I visit Diane DeMacro’s Cupcakery truck on Clarendon Street, one of only two spots she says that does well for her — the other being in front of the Boston Public Library.

What she thinks would help is if she could set up shop right next to other food trucks. This is known in the trade as “clustering,” and you can see it in action on City Hall plaza in the summertime, and right now in Dewey Square, which is a spot administered by the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

“It’s the clustering that brings people,” DeMarco says. “They feel like they have a choice; it brings groups.”

“So, like maybe have three or four trucks like yours around the corner on Copley Square?” I suggest.

“Yeah, exactly,” she says with a glint of longing in her eye.

Murnane responds to this idea with a hearty laugh. “Copley Square would be great,” she says. “Except that you have people who need parking for retail, parking for farmer’s markets, so to take out a city block for food truck parking becomes problematic.”

Murnane says she is considering locations for other clusters, but she’s looking more at neglected areas of the city where food trucks could introduce fresh vitality — that’s one of her chief objectives for allowing food trucks in the first place.

“East Boston would be a great location,” she says.

“Maverick [Square]?” I ask?

“Yeah,” she says enthusiastically. “It probably has the second- or third-highest pedestrian traffic in the city.”

But DeMarco says high traffic isn’t always enough, something she found out the hard way in Jamaica Plain’s Egleston Square.

“The city probably had the misconception [that] if you put a food truck in an area that maybe needs revitalization, people will go,” DeMarco says. “But it has not happened.”

DeMarco says her industry is too new to venture into the outer neighborhoods, or pursue altruistic business plans. “I mean, maybe in the future, several years down the line, maybe that could work,” she says. “But right now we need all the support we can get to get, you know, our foot on the ground.”

In the meantime, DeMarco says she’s looking to get back into book publishing. She figures maybe she’ll keep the truck going on the weekends in the summertime, when there are more people walking the sidewalks, looking for a treat.

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  • Guest

    You hear about trucks in New York parking wherever they like and accepting that they’ll get up to a $1000 in parking tickets…and STILL make a profit.  Is there any evidence that Boston mobile food operators have taken it upon themselves to park where the customers are and accept the tickets as a cost of doing (profitable) business?

    • Anonymous

       Just what we need….MORE double parking in Boston. 

      Big food truck fan, thrilled every time I run into one unexpectedly and I always support them and get something tasty.   But you cannot double park in Boston like in NYC, there just isnt the space.

      • Don

        I’m definitely not in favor of double parking (tow them all!), but the city’s already taken away plenty of spots for loading zones, cab stands, and valet parking. Same could be done for some food trucks.

  • Nick Knight

    I would like to see more European style Kiosk. 

  • Me

    Who cares about the parking problem? Having a car in the city is a luxury, not a necessity. I lived in Boston for 13 years without a car and got along just fine, especially after the introduction of Zipcar (for those few times I did need to leave the city).

    Seems to me that the MBTA is in a severe budget crisis, so the problem appears pretty simple to solve. Let the food trucks park and force drivers to either pay for garage parking or take the T (which desperately needs the cash). Sounds to me like the City doesn’t want to lose out on the parking ticket revenue (which they fradulently obtain anyway). Can’t tell you how many times I have seen tickets being issued to cars that still had time on the meter (and a good friend of mine used to be a ‘meter maid’ and admitted this was common practice). Get with the times Boston, people want the food trucks, not the parking spot!

    • FerialDay

      I don’t think they’re complaining about customer parking; rather, their problem is where to park the food truck itself.

      The food trucks often park off-street. Copley Square (like City Hall) has plenty of off-street pavement. Let them park next to the BPL or where the farmer’s market sets up.

    • anonymous

      People also want to park their car so they can visit the stores in certain areas. if there is very little parking in a certain area (if food trucks take up that space) it makes people less likely to drive, park, visit and shop. In the end it may have an impact on sales at b&m stores. So really what you’re suggesting is to give resources to food trucks that help b&m stores.

  • Anonymous

    I heard Murnane on the radio this morning – although she has a restaurant background, she doesn’t seem to get it. These truck are small businesses, not community experiments, unless the city is subsidizing them – which does not seem to be the case. I presume the city is making money from the trucks through permitting and should therefore be a parnter in sharing in their success. Murnane should be arguing against saving parking spaces around Copley Sq for cars! Clustering trucks around the library would seem to be a natural option. As they become more successful they can expand to other neighborhoods.

  • http://twitter.com/Hotdogman1964 Rob Merlino

    I think they ought to allow clusters in open public spaces such as the Common or Public Garden or even Copley Square. Allow thee trucks to pull up off the street so as not to impact public parking. I for one would not be offended by having three or four food trucks “up on the grass” on the Common. I think it would bring more folks out, help the trucks, and probably provide a little revenue for the city. They need to understand that food trucks can create a certain funky, feel good attitude while providing needed, low cost options for meals or snacks. Look at other cities with vibrant food truck scenes and emulate them. I CAN work everywhere if the city and the trucks are on the same page.

  • Carol

    A food truck is never going to compete with a sit-down restaurant, so Ms. Murnane should stop worrying about that.  It’s a completely different style of eating.  And as far as taking up parking spaces, is her mandate to encourage “food initiatives” or parking?  Others have made the argument very well:  we don’t need more parking, we need fewer cars.  Penalize the cars, as other major cities have, and you have a better quality of life – enhanced by more food trucks!

  • Megan Marrs

    It is too bad that lousy weather can affect business so much for food trucks. But then again, is it that different for brick and mortar stores? People don’t want to leave their place of comfort as often in the winter.
    I am pretty excited about the growing presence of food trucks in Boston. I recently started a food truck blog in which I try and review food trucks throughout Boston.

    Check it out and tell me what you think. Have you guys tried these places?

  • Anonymous

    Why does the food cost more than from the food trucks in NY?  I got a really good chicken kabab for $3 off one truck there and a falafal sandwich another time for the same price. 

    • Martyb0071

      Competition, Supply & Demand!!! I can assure you that no one can stay in business selling $3 items with few customers. NYC is a Huge Market w/ thousands of potential customers. Boston customer base hasn’t caught up yet.

      • Anonymous

        Lower prices and get more customers. 

  • Anonymous

    I’d rather the public provide parking to a food truck than a personal vechicle. 

  • Circusmcgurkus

    Doesn’t the city lease spaces in parking lots to Zipcar?  Isn’t that a private enterprise?  Why isn’t this a greater good kind of analysis.  People want inexpensive, delicious food choices and these trucks have been fun and reasonably priced maybe even more than they want Zipcars.

    Food trucks are great.  Locals like them, tourists like them…why wouldn’t the city support them?  

    • The Trout

      In addition, think about all of the parking spaces taken out of commission and devoted to “taxi cab only” spots. And then there are the Red Sox - 82 times per year, not counting playoffs, they privatize an entire street ! Two examples of how powerful monied interests get to bend the rules.

      Food trucks add vitality to the urban experience -wake up city hall and get your head into the 21st century!

  • Anonymous

    Personally I think the idea of Food Trucks in Boston is a stupid idea because lets be honest, Boston has enough double parking problems.  But I remember working downtown every day and eventually you get sick of the same lunch choices.  Having a Scheduled and Predictable Revolving Food Truck program would probably bring some much appreciated food choice to different areas of the city.

    That Edith Murnane’s laugh about Copley Square was really insulting.  Maybe she shouldn’t be the person giving interviews for the Mayor’s office, she sure is rude.
    And East Boston is a NIGHTMARE.  The Mayor should do his job and flatten the entire area so the region can start over and be revitalized.  Once he gets that done, then he can expect Food Trucks to move in and revitalizing the area.

  • Anonymous

    I can see food trucks being allowed to cluster around events and farmers’ markets, where there is an organized litter disposal and clean up afterwards. However, more cheap fast food is the last thing fat Americans need. They may want it, but is it in the public health interest? No. And what about the increased litter and garbage. NYC is considering making food in the subways illegal because of the increase in rats feasting on garbage left on and around trains. This desire to give our cities Third World ‘atmosphere’ reflects the general lowering of American tastes and public space/health standards. This reflects the trend to turn city centers into theme parks.

  • Jim

    Definitely support the idea – food trucks are great. They are all over the place in Europe and they are extremely popular. Get rid of valet parking and help food trucks and kiosks liven up our neighborhoods.

  • Davey

    In most cases Food Trucks are successful(profitable) because they have much lower operating costs, Rent, Capital costs, labor to name a few. The City charges rent for those spots based on the meal time and days of operation. In many cities Food Trucks are not subjected to those costs, look across the Charles to see what happens when rents if any are reasonable and a common sense approach has led to success for those operators, Clover, Momogoose…who basically operate as brick and mortar in the same location every day, only to leave at the end of the day. Clover was doing quite well at Dewey when they were all by their lonesome, the landscape has changed now that the greenway has multiple trucks there. 

    • Tom

      People don’t necessarily understand all the costs involved in operating a food truck. The common misconception is that they are cheaper to start up and run than a restaurant. What most don’t realize is that you need a professional commissary space as a home base which costs just as much as a small brick & mortar establishment. If you are renting commissary space you are paying the same rent, taxes, etc. you would if it was a small restaurant. Not to mention all the insurance involved for the truck, employees and the multiple million dollar policies required by the city and private sites. It’s not as cheap and easy to make money as most assume!

      • Davey

         Tom I am not discounting the costs involved in operating a food truck, but you should agree that operating a truck is generally less than a brick and mortar start up. Clover operated out of a shared kitchen, (Crop Circle in JP) and only when they had sufficient capital and sales did they relocate to a brick and mortar facility of their own.
        My point,(which I didn’t clearly make) is that cities where this enterprise is encouraged tend to have more dynamic food truck scenes, Boston is retentive and controlling to the point of absudity when it comes to street food; this in turn leads to the failure or struggles of operators who have great food/experiences at reasonable prices.

  • http://twitter.com/ursonate charlene mcbride

    Edith Murnane seems pretty clueless. Maybe she needs to go to Austin (which totally gets it) and be force-fed some korean tacos.

    There needs to be a lot more clustering and a lot more variety and also I wonder if there are private land owners that could rent out space to the trucks?

    In addition, I would hope that the quality of the food trucks would cause brick and mortar restaurants to improve, ’cause a lot of them just aren’t that great.

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