THE BOSTON FOOD TRUCK CHALLENGE

By Steve Holt | EdibleCommunities.com

It’s one of those first warm days in early spring when every Bostonian with a pulse takes a walk outside during lunch. this particular Monday, many venture to a convenient but often overlooked section of City Hall Plaza. They’re probably here with last night’s leftovers or a greasy slice of pizza, right?

Actually, no. More like Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and noodle salads, chickpea fritters and soy blts, ga nuong, Korean barbecue and a variety of fresh curries. Perhaps most peculiarly, these delicacies are all served from three food trucks—24-foot-long kitchens on wheels occupying an underutilized space of the plaza just across Congress Street from Faneuil Hall. Nationwide, food trucks are bringing fresh, often locally sourced gourmet cuisine to the masses, quickly and cheaply. In Boston—which is behind cities like Los Angeles, Austin, Portland and even New York in adopting a food truck culture—City Hall Plaza is ground zero for what many hope is a burgeoning food truck revolution.

Here, three trucks—Momogoose, Bon Me and Clover—form an outdoor food court between April and October. The businesses won the spots in a contest organized by the City of Boston to promote and propel new and existing food trucks. the Food Truck Challenge was introduced last summer as an open casting call for those interested in operating a food truck on City hall Plaza this summer. The city asked that the cuisine be healthy and environmentally sustainable, in accordance with Mayor Menino’s effort to expand access to fresh fruits and produce, limit the availability of unhealthy foods and sugary drinks and encourage more physical activity in Boston.

In September, the city received applications from 28 new and existing food trucks to claim one of three coveted spots on City Hall Plaza from April 4 to October 31. The breadth of competition entering the Food Truck Challenge speaks to the interest in food trucks within the culinary community: everything from gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to pickles. For a few entrants—notably Dosa Factory, Olécito and Ko Catering—the contest marked a first shot at breaking out of the established restaurant mold and into the trendy universe of food trucks.

“The Food Truck Challenge was really about having a conversation around healthy food,” says Edith Murnane, the city’s director of food initiatives, “and then encouraging small entrepreneurs to participate.”

Upon submitting a thorough proposal to enter the Food Truck Challenge, teams were put through three grueling rounds of competition. To narrow the field from 28 to 12, officials evaluated each component of the teams’ proposals, including their economic feasibility, start-up opportunity and completeness of their applications.  In the semifinal round, a “celebrity” panel of judges—which included legal Seafood’s Roger Berkowitz and Taranta’s Jose Duarte—evaluated each food truck concept for its dietary health, reasonableness of pricing, environmental sustainability, uniqueness and community engagement. Combined with the results from a public vote, the final six teams were selected. For the final round, teams put together short video commercials, had their business plans again scrutinized by judges and financial advisers and served their products to around 500 people in a public taste test on City Hall Plaza. the public and panel of judges then voted one last time to determine the three trucks that would earn a 6½-month vending contract on the plaza.

Just a few months into their time on City Hall Plaza, the food trucks seem to be gaining momentum with the public. lines at each of the trucks can stretch a good ways during the lunch rush, as students, government workers, financial services employees and, of course, tourists choose to satisfy their pangs in an unconventional manner. In fact, all three trucks initially had trouble early on keeping enough food on hand to satisfy the lunchtime swell, a problem they quickly remedied.

Allison Rude walked over from the financial district, where she works at an advertising agency. She appreciates the new City Hall Plaza “food court” because of the variety it offers in an area where options can be fairly monotonous.

“I’ve exhausted all my options [in the financial district],” says Rude, who ordered a banh mi sandwich from Bon Me. “this will be my new feeding ground for a little bit.”

THE TRUCKS

So, who are these four-wheeled upstarts poaching business from touristy Quincy Market across the street?

They are a Cambridge institution (Momogoose), a brick-andmortar restaurant with a fleet of trucks (Clover) and a legitimate greenhorn in the restaurant business (Bon Me). For two of these trucks—Bon Me and Momogoose—City Hall Plaza is their Boston debut. And Bon Me’s owners are operating their first truck altogether.

First the newby, Bon Me. the name is an intentionally gringoized play on the traditional vietnamese sandwich, banh mi.  Their banh mi—which you can have made with barbecue pork, grilled chicken or tofu and shitake mushrooms and loaded with yummy sauces and fresh vegetables—has been warmly welcomed with long lines. Just a few days into its stint, they sold so many sandwiches they ran out of ingredients, forcing them to close early. This may all come as a surprise given the fact that Bon Me’s coowners jumped into the Food Truck Challenge with only a concept and zero experience serving food from a truck.

But looking closer, one sees that in reality, Bon Me’s successful model results from the mix of people who run it. Patrick Lynch, a recent MIT graduate in urban planning, wrote the business plan and crunches the numbers. Asta Schuette applies her front-of house restaurant experience and tufts degree in Agriculture, Food and Environment to her day-to-day role of managing the truck.  And the culinary genius behind the scenes is chef Alison Fong, a graduate of Culinary Institute of America, veteran of prestigious kitchens in new York and Boston, and Lynch’s wife.

It was Fong who insisted they enter the contest after lynch discovered it searching for jobs on the City of Boston’s website. Before they knew it, Bon Me was in the semifinals. Lynch was even offered a job during the contest, which he turned down to focus solely on the truck.

“I don’t think we ever thought we were going to do a food truck when we entered, but by the end we were both really excited,” Lynch says.

After Bon Me was named a semifinalist, Schuette joined the team. She’s now a co-owner and handles all the food truck operations and communications. Bon Me was named a winner in November, and Schuette was with Lynch and Fong when they picked up their custom-built truck from Connecticut in late February.  Schuette had been an intern for Fong at her day job—food services director at the Brimmer and May School in Chestnut hill.

During the school year Fong was working full days before working late into the night preparing the next day’s offerings. (The meats, sauces and toppings are all prepared the night before, but meals are assembled to order on the truck.)

Food trucks usually require a brick-and-mortar commissary to accommodate their food preparation needs. Bon Me operates out of a kitchen in Malden. Just down the road is Piantedosi Baking Company, where Bon Me sources all of its artisanal baguettes. For Tracy Thai—an area student giving the food trucks a first try—the bread is what makes the sandwich work.

“This is the best bread I’ve found in Boston for vietnamese sandwiches,” says Thai, who is half Vietnamese herself and a self-described expert in pan-Asian food in Boston. The vegetables, she adds, are also “spot on.” tangy carrots and daikon pickles, fresh cilantro and cucumber are complemented by Bon Me’s secret sauce.  Many of the veggies come from Massachusetts farms, and the livers used in their pâté come from Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds in Concord. Bon Me sources its gmo-free tofu from family-owned Chang Shing tofu in Cambridge.

Vietnam’s cuisine is heavily influenced by French and Chinese cuisines (both from occupation days) and also incorporates many of India’s curries. Bon Me is partnering with new Entry Sustainable Agriculture because of its abundance of farmers who emigrated here from Southeast Asia. the owners hope to add breakfast and dinner to their menu down the line, but in the end they believe they’re meeting a demand with their concept.

“This is street food,” Schuette says, “but we’re taking it up a notch and adding our own twist on it.”

If Bon Me is the new kid on the block, then Momogoose is the grizzled old man across the street—a friendly, wildly successful and innovative old man, mind you. Calling Momogoose a veteran in the food truck doesn’t go quite far enough, though: Its owners introduced the concept to Boston.

In 1989, a Vietnamese couple at MIT started Goosebeary’s Food Truck for a taste of their homeland in Kendall Square, which at that time had almost nowhere to eat. Last year the food truck’s name changed to Momogoose. A Kendall Square mainstay with daily lines down the street and around the corner, the food truck’s owners boast about having served over 2 million meals since it’s opening over 20 years ago. Its owners also claim as their regular customers some of the world’s smartest people: MIT’s president, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Nobel laureates and the creators of guitar hero, to name a few. Momogoose is pan-Asian in every sense of the term, serving piping hot curry and masala dishes from India, Korean barbecue, a number of Vietnamese staples and some popular Chinese and Thai plates. Over half their menu is now vegan or vegetarian, as well.

The decision to expand beyond the Republic (Cambridge) coincided with the arrival of Tiffany Pham, the founders’ granddaughter.  A Yale graduate and former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, Pham quit her high-paying Wall Street job to join Momogoose, the “family heirloom.” She immediately applied her business knowledge to transforming Goosebeary into Momogoose, including adding a charitable component and building additional trucks. She says they’d like to establish five new Momogoose locations in Boston besides City Hall Plaza. And when Momogoose enters a city, Pham says, they’re committed to it.

“We’re not thinking about pulling out after a few months,” she says. “We’ve been [in Kendall Square] for 20 years, and we’re not thinking about going anywhere.”

If Boston continues to accept Momogoose as passionately as Cambridge has, staying will be an easy choice. Crowds have latched on to their lightning-fast service and low prices, not to mention the steaming Asian comfort dishes. (I tried their ga nuong, a divine variation on lemongrass chicken, served over noodles and fresh lettuce.) given the freshness of Momogoose’s vegetables, Pham says many customers simply request enormous salads with a variety of toppings.

Remarkably, for every meal Momogoose serves, it gives one away.  Momogoose partners with the World Food Programme to fund nourishing school meals for children in developing countries. this kind of social component is fairly common in the food truck world, whether it is manifested in meal giveaways like Momogoose’s or simply sourcing food locally and sustainably. given the volume of business Momogoose does from its Cambridge truck, their onefor-one partnership amounts to an enormous philanthropic effort serving the world’s poorest children. The number of meals donated between october and April, for instance? 50,000.

So what started as a couple of students serving meals out of a tiny truck in the late ’80s has developed almost a life of its own. As Momogoose now has Boston in its culinary crosshairs, one question remains: Is Boston ready?

BOSTON: PRIMED FOR A TRUCKING REVOLUTION?

Food trucks make a lot of sense for a number of reasons. They operate with extremely low overhead compared to freestanding restaurants.  Their size and mobility allow them to bring gourmet foods to underserved areas of town and change locations depending on the meal. And food trucks get people outdoors. “It’s fun to eat outside when it’s nice,” says Bon Me’s Lynch. “It’s a good way for the city to get people into the public spaces.”

For Boston to truly become a “food truck city,” political will and an entrepreneurial spirit must mingle seamlessly with public demand.  the Food Truck Challenge was a first step in the city’s efforts to make Boston more accommodating to mobile vendors. But the road to a clearer and simpler permitting process has a ways to go, and has certainly had its bumps thus far.

In March, one of the three contest winners—World Eats—gave up its spot on City Hall Plaza, its co-owner citing their reasons as a lack of support from the city in finding additional locations and the economic unfeasibility of their business model. Co-owner Santiago Lopez said World Eats would have needed the assurance of at least one additional location in Boston, which, after a number of requests to various city departments, didn’t happen. Some of the other contestant’s share Lopez’s sentiments that the city could have done more to support them during the contest and that food truck legislation in Boston lagged behind the mayor’s good intentions.

Many signs point to a changing bureaucratic landscape, however.  In April, the Boston City Council approved an ordinance that would streamline the permitting process for food trucks, cutting out the need for new trucks to gain approval from a number of different city offices before opening up. The city also reached out to residents and potential vendors this spring in a survey aimed at identifying the areas and neighborhoods most ripe for food trucks.  (Murnane of the city says responses were numerous and helpful.)

City officials also point to Clover as proof the food truck model can work in Boston. In just one year, Clover has grown from seven to 70 employees and now features five locations in Boston and Cambridge. In their six months parked at the Dewey Square section of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy greenway last summer, Clover owners estimate that they were responsible for attracting 50,000 visitors to the park. In fact, Clover was so successful last summer that the greenway (which is operated by the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, not the city) has opened up space this year to two more food trucks—both of which participated in the Food Truck Challenge—and a handful of pushcarts and other vendors. Murnane says Clover’s numbers show “how food trucks can activate an area and impact employment.”

But regardless of the apparent forward momentum, some operators are taking a wait-and-see position before making plans to expand too rapidly. Despite lower overhead costs than brick-and-mortar restaurants, food trucks are far from cheap. the truck alone—which must be retrofitted to serve food if it’s not already—can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. Add to that the ongoing costs for labor, marketing, food and equipment repair, you have a significant investment for most food truck entrepreneurs.  lynch says Bon Me will weigh both its success on City Hall Plaza this summer and the permitting climate before starting in on its second truck.

“If it’s really hard to get spots for trucks, then it doesn’t seem like a great business model in the long run,” says Lynch, who also says they likely will do catering in the winter and haven’t ruled out opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “But if we can sell a lot out of the trucks and move to different places, then I think more would be wonderful. It’s definitely really exciting to be in this type of venue.”

Murnane remains positive about efforts to expand food truck legislation, saying, “We hope to galvanize the city around all the issues that the city needed to focus on when it comes to bringing food trucks to the city.”

Back outside on City hall Plaza this warm Monday, men and women in suits take their soy Blts and tofu noodle bowls to spots where they can sit and soak up some rays while they eat. The positive vibes are palpable here in this food court on wheels. Taking another bite of banh mi and a sip of my deliciously strong Vietnamese iced coffee I said to myself. “I hope Boston gets more of these.”

Whether Boston will sits in the hands of legislators, brave entrepreneurs and an often-finicky dining public. Time will tell.