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Food Trucks Roll into Boston

Customers place their orders at Bon Me food truck window (Source: http://newsoulfood.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/2011-04-22_12-47-07_894.jpg)

Regulations for the new Boston Food Trucks program have caused roadblocks for some and created opportunity for others, as 15 trucks were launched this past July. This launch was a result of a collaborative effort by several departments in the city, including the Mayor’s Office and Boston Redevelopment Authority. Although many are excited about the introduction of trucks, officials and food truck vendors are still trying to iron out the kinks in the regulations of the young program.

Boston has been behind the food truck trend and is hoping to catch up to other cities such as Philadelphia and New York. “This is just the beginning of a process to foster an active food truck culture in Boston,” said Mayor Menino, adding that the trucks will be serving up “wicked good food.”

Boston began its food truck mania by holding its first Food Truck Challenge to attract more trucks to the city. About 30 new and existing food trucks competed, each seeking the coveted prize of six months free rent on City Hall Plaza. The victorious trucks were also promised technical assistance, guidance in permits, and help applying for low-interest loans from the city.

The three victors, Bon Me, Momogoose, and Clover Fast Food, presented a business plan, 60-second promotional video, and underwent taste testing. Two rounds of public voting determined the winners. “We felt like huge underdogs going up against all these established businesses,” said Patrick Lynch, who co-owns Bon Me along with a BU alum. “If we hadn’t won, I don’t think we would have started a truck.”

This past April, according to a press release published by the Mayor’s Office, Mayor Menino worked with the City Council in order to “streamline and expedite the permitting process and make it easier for entrepreneurs to launch their businesses.” He hopes to continue to attract food trucks to Boston as a way to “enliven public spaces” and to create a fun, food truck culture within the city.

However, some food trucks got off to a rocky start when they failed to pass initial health code regulations. According to an inspection list published by CBS Boston, three trucks had their licenses suspended after several code violations, including Boston Food Truck Challenge winner Clover.

Violations included keeping food at temperatures low enough for bacteria to grow, not providing suitable hand-washing facilities, and employees eating in the service area. These critical infringements caused the temporary suspension of Clover’s permit, something that has a few consumers worried. “It’s scary to think that people handling our food can make so many mistakes,” said student Paige Bradley.

The city is new to food trucks and so is also new on how to apply the health codes to the food trucks. This may be the reason why many trucks had difficulties in knowing how to keep their own trucks up to regulations. Bon Me hasn’t had any violations however they found it difficult to find information on what equipment would be best to allow them to pass health inspections.

“A lot of the challenges come from the space being very small,” said Lynch. “We decided early on that we didn’t want to prepare raw meat in the truck. It’s taken a while to figure out how to keep the proteins moist and flavorful while also doing everything up to code.”

According to CBS Boston, Clover and the other trucks are now completely up to code and again serving food from their trucks at several different locations. “I think if they fixed the problems and no one got sick, then it’s fine. Their food is delicious,” BU student Candice Bancheri said.

Mayor Menino sampling some food truck fare (Source: Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

This brings up Mayor Menino’s Healthy Food Initiative, another regulation that may have caused a speed bump for some trucks. According to a July 12, 2011 press release from the Mayor’s Office, trucks were given the parameter that their menu had to include “one healthy menu option that does not include fried foods, trans-fats, or high fructose corn syrup. The healthy menu option also has to include at least three of the following: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, reduced fat or lean meats that are grilled, broiled, or baked.” The vendors were also encouraged to utilize local and sustainable food sources and to offer healthy beverages as an alternative to soda.

For many trucks, this adds to the challenge. “The [health] code isn’t really written to favor healthy food. It’s very easy if you use lots of packaged and processed stuff, or if you deep-fry everything. It’s hard to make fresh food like we do,” said Lynch.

This Healthy Food Initiative could have proved especially difficult for such food trucks as The Cupcakory; however, they fulfilled the requirements by providing vegan and gluten-free cupcakes.

Students are responding very positively to the promotion of healthier, more sustainable food choices being offered at affordable prices. “It’s great to have access to healthy food even during the day when you’re in a rush,” explained student Paige Bradley. “When I normally would grab some fattening fast food, I can now get a cheap vegan sandwich that tastes amazing and the service is just as fast.”

Although the food truck program in Boston has made progress in the past year, the struggle is not over.  Impending cold weather may decrease the amount of customers willing to purchase and eat their food outside. Others face challenges of keeping the spots that are vital to their businesses.

Yet, even though prizewinner Bon Me may still face some issues in the future, they are hopeful. “We’ve been struggling to figure out how long we can stay at City Hall Plaza, and that process has put us in a tough spot. BU has been great, but lunch is still the bulk of our business. We need a good lunch spot in order to be able to operate now. Maybe in a few months once BU has gotten to know us things will be different though,” said Lynch.

Glitches and snags are to be expected from a program as young as the Boston Food Trucks. And by the increasing lines, it doesn’t appear that the customers seem to mind.

“I think people like the entrepreneurial spirit of food trucks,” said Lynch. “Cities like trucks in part because it helps get people outdoors using common spaces.  Trucks make the streets more vibrant, which makes them more enjoyable for citizens and safer.”

 

Find a full list and schedule of the Boston Food Trucks here

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