By Pat Blais | Middlesex East
STONEHAM – It’s an undertaking that would have been technically impossible just four years ago.
Next month, Stoneham will play host for the first ever food truck festival on the North Shore, when some 20 vendors in the burgeoning industry will be serving up their cuisine on the Town Common.
The event, organized by Food Truck Festivals of America (FTFoA), will be the finale of the Allston-based organizations’ 2015 season, and it is expected to draw as many as 5,000 guests to the heart of Stoneham Square off Main Street near Town Hall on Saturday, October 17th from 11am-5pm.
Besides offering a wide-variety of dishes, from gourmet grilled cheeses and BBQ to whoopie pies and waffles, the festival will also feature craft beers from Boston-based Samuel Adams.
Just four years ago, when the first food truck gathering was launched at the edge of Cape Cod, FTFoA founder Ann Marie Aigner scoured the state for vendors and was able to scrounge up just eight participants.
But now, with a merchant list that numbers in the hundreds, the Stoneham festival next month is sure to show-off the staying power of the food truck phenomenon that has swept across the country from its birthplace in Los Angeles, Calif.
“Of course, you’ll have to wear comfortable shoes and elastic-waistband pants, because this is not a diet day. The food is unbelievable,” joked Janet Prensky, a spokesperson for Food Truck Festivals of America. “We’ll have something for everyone. We don’t repeat foods, so you won’t have two grilled cheese trucks. You’ll have 20 different types of [cuisine].”
General admission at the gates will cost $5, though tickets can be purchased in advance online atftfa.eventbrite.com <http://ftfa.eventbrite.com> . The event runs from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., but for those looking to beat the lines, special VIP tickets — enabling guests to enter the festival between 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. — can be purchased for $20.
Because the Town Common is a smaller venue than festivals held across New England this season, entry at the gate might be restricted if crowds become too large.
“Because we’re in Stoneham Square, we’re not going to be in a huge park with unlimited sales. I do urge people to buy tickets ahead of time, so people are assured of getting space,” said Prensky.
Gourmet cuisine for
Those unimpressed with the idea of tasting entrees from an oversized van may do well to toss aside preconceived images of rolling hot dog carts or so-called Roach Coaches hawking stale bagels and pre-packaged ham-and-cheese sandwiches.
According to Prensky, that’s because the booming food truck industry in New England is being propelled by a host of emerging chefs serving up what she can only describe as gourmet cuisine. Unlike a refrigerated cargo bed, the typical food truck is around 27-feet long and is equipped with a fully-functional kitchen, where aspiring entrepreneurs are preparing made-to-order delicacies like lobster tacos, truffle fries, and custom grilled-cheese sandwiches topped with guacamole and bacon.
In fact, the types of dishes are as varied as you would find at any top-notch restaurant in the area, with everything from Vietnamese sandwiches and duck tacos, to vegetable burritos, sesame-encrusted tuna, and handmade pastas being prepared.
“This isn’t your father’s food truck. We’re talking about high-quality restaurant food,” said the FTFoA spokesman.
Those engrossed with the food truck movement trace the phenomenon back to Los Angeles in the 1960s, where so-called loncheras or taco trucks began dotting the landscape of Mexican-American neighborhoods.
Despite clashes with local government regulators over the mobile restaurants in the ensuing decades, their popularity slowly expanded as other immigrants, such as those from Asia and the Middle East, followed suit.
In recent years, food truck operations — perhaps boosted by a nationwide recession in 2008 that limited expendable income for dining out — began fanning out towards the East Coast, all while the model became an increasingly popular business venue for aspiring chefs lacking the financial backing to open a traditional restaurant.
“What we noticed is it’s becoming a tremendous starting opportunity for talented ‘foodtrepeneurs’. They can’t necessarily afford to open a restaurant. It’s a great way to break into the business and show off their talents,” explained the FTFoA spokesman.
According to Prensky, in 2011, when Aigner was asked by a client in Plymouth, Mass. to put together an unique festival for a high-end housing development and golf course, the event planner was well-aware of the industry’s soaring popularity.
But when she was only able to find eight food truck vendors for the event, she and Prensky were worried…that is, until some 4,000 people showed.
“It was jammed, and people were so excited to see these food trucks. So Ann Marie and I said, ‘We think we’re onto something here,’” recalled the spokesperson.
“Nothing beats a great restaurant. But I think people love the casual nature [of a food truck experience]. You don’t have to make a reservation or dress up, and you can just spread out the blanket [at a nearby park for a picnic],” she added. “You stick your head in the window and meet the chefs one-on-one while they cook your food. You just don’t necessarily get that with a restaurant.”
Easing local fears
Though food trucks can now be found all over Boston and in other cities and towns across the Commonwealth, including a fleet of vehicles in Malden that do business in neighboring communities, the proliferation of the mobile restaurants has been met with its fair share of opposition.
In fact, in September of 2014, officials in Stoneham debated whether to allow a local restauranteur, former Georgie D’s Place proprietor George Diangelis, to operate a food truck at the Town Common — ironically, the same spot where the North Shore Food Truck Festival is being held next month.
At the time, Selectmen Chair Thomas Boussy, who advocated on behalf of Diangelis’s venture and was later instrumental in facilitating the approval of the event next month, ultimately backed away from the initiative due to concerns over how to regulate the industry in Stoneham.
Discussions about approving a set of local regulations has since fizzled out, and it’s unclear whether Diangelis is still pursing the idea.
Various town officials last fall listed off a litany of concerns about food trucks, including whether they would compete too closely with downtown merchants in Stoneham Square eateries and questions about who would ensure food is being safely prepared.
Others inquired about the creation of parking restrictions for such operations and whether the fire chief should have to certify that each vehicle doesn’t contain fire or other safety hazards.
“Most towns that have food trucks have a bylaw and regulations. It doesn’t have to be amazingly bureaucratic, but we should just [spell out some basic rules]. We would have a light hand in regulating it by specifying time, place, and manner,” advised Town Counsel William Solomon last fall.
According to Prensky, she is familiar with apprehensions being voiced in communities unfamiliar with the industry, and FTFoA sees the seasonal festivals as a way to alleviate those concerns.
“A lot of what we do is work with communities and educate them. It is a new industry, and not everyone is prepared,” she said. “The initial reaction from the community is, ‘Geez, I don’t know how to proceed.’”
“Food trucks are as safe, if not safer, than other food establishments, because they are so regulated. They’re safe, permitted, and have passed rigorous health and safety requirements,” added the spokeswoman.
Besides statewide rules, municipalities have also implemented rigid permitting ordinances. For example, in Boston, the industry is closely regulated and monitored, with operators being required to submit detailed applications that include descriptions of where and when food will be sold, proof of access to restrooms and sinks, and documentation of necessary state and local food service permits.
According to Prensky, who is not familiar with Stoneham’s recent attempt to regulate food trucks, she believes many town officials will become much more comfortable with the business model, once they have an opportunity to see some 20 such vendors next month.
“Health inspectors check on food trucks all the time. At every single one of our festivals, we make sure the health inspector comes and checks off on every one of our trucks. Once they come and see how clean our trucks are, people come around.”