Boston’s Food Truck Scene Pushes Forward Despite Obstacles
One of the most challenging cities for a food truck operation, Boston nonetheless has an energetic scene of dedicated operators serving delicious grab-and-go meals to thousands of hungry downtown workers. Mobile food operations hit Boston hard around 2012, a few years after a previous mayor launched a “Food Truck Challenge” to determine public support. Since then, countless vehicles have taken it to the street, with approximately 80 trucks making their rounds daily, connecting with customers on an almost visceral level.
“I saw an opportunity to pursue my passion for cooking and running my own business, in an environment that would give me more immediate exposure to clientele than a brick-and-mortar shop,” says Jason Melmed, of Papi’s Stuffed Sopapillas, which serves multiple varieties of the savory and sweet stuffed, crispy, fried breads.
Roxy’s, the first truck to park on a city street in 2010, has also found a loyal audience for its addictive grilled cheese over the years. “We love getting to know our guests and communities and have tried to continue that experience as the business has grown,” says Tess Jutras, who handles marketing and social media. “It's a great way to get to know your customers on a more personal level.”
Still, not even a hungry public can ease the strains of operation. Permitting is difficult and expensive, with each municipality demanding its own authorizations, on top of the city application, health permit, cooking permit, business certificate, GPS navigation contract and peddler license—all of which need to be re-approved yearly. Furthermore, an annual lottery is held to secure parking spots downtown, an egalitarian approach that still leaves a growing group of operators vying for the same number of spots.
According to Irene Li, of Mei Mei, the challenges are sobering. “The spaces are limited and the trucks have grown ten-fold. The math is stacked against you with long winters, hot summers and a poor infrastructure for success,” she explains. Since 2016, Li has completely taken her famous Chinese-American truck fare out of lunch rotation and now focuses solely on catering and wedding business.
Prep space is also an ongoing concern for operators, who need daily use of a commissary or restaurant kitchen before they even pull out of the garage. Taco Party, which serves vegan tacos, eventually evolved into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“Originally, we were prepping in a shared kitchen with 15-20 other businesses, which was impossible and wasn’t conducive to being creative,” says owner Keith Schubert, “so we decided to open a take-out spot that is open all day and offers flexibility to prep for the truck.”
New trucks continue to roll out yearly, however, and veteran operators offer insight. “Do your due diligence, have a business plan, continually seek better spots and realize catering is going to be a gigantic portion of your business,” continues Schubert. “If you don’t, you’re not going to survive.”
Adds Li, “There’s a very romantic aspect of running a food truck, but the day-to-day [routine] is a little less shiny.”