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Tainted (food truck) love

Posted by Chad O'Connor  July 23, 2013 11:00 AM

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To be blunt. I want to start a food truck.

Having lived in LA years ago, catching whiffs and nibbles of such institutions as the Grilled Cheese Truck or the all-bacon all-day Lardon (yes, like hard-on but greasier…probably) the idea seemed prime. Fast-forward to the present and not only have I moved east but so has the mobile food trend. Now Boston is flooded with options from Vietnamese to vegan, Portsmouth’s fleet is growing, and most recently Portland, ME has opened the f(l)oodgates. Hell, even the Vineyard has a food truck. So it’s clear I am not alone in my ambitions. And to no surprise. These trucks are a young entrepreneur’s or budding chef's dream business. Low startup costs, creative freedom, cross-promotions around every corner, and, of course, food.

All this sounds great on paper, right? But recent headlines point to what could be the dark horse of the endeavor. Food safety. As with any brick and mortar restaurant, this should always be a major concern…perhaps even more so for new trucks. Patrick Lynch, owner and operator of Bon Me says “The food truck trend had just started rolling into Boston when we got our start, and a lot of people still had the old "roach coach" mentality in mind.” This mentality for the most part, has become an antiquated one. Nowadays food trucks look sleek, polished and inviting. Upon first glance, the average customer is probably more likely to think of gorging on salmon and hitting up Twitter than they are about getting salmonella and hitting the sh…, well, toilet…

At least until recently. The Clover Food Lab could easily be named the pioneers of the Boston food truck scene and may also be the most popular. CEO Ayr Muir and co. have been safely dishing up unique vegetarian dishes from an always-expanding variety of locations for over 5 years now. Yet, they are now closed and have been for a week. Although it’s not yet clear if they are responsible for any of the recently reported cases of salmonella, what is clear is that even if their food was never tainted, their reputation has been.

A multitude of news reports sprang up on the closing of Clover almost instantly, ranging from the “lynch the poisoners!” type article to those showing tenderness towards the small business. These articles, more or less, work to illustrate the attitudes of customers. Of course there will be backlash…Hungry folks may choose to skip the lunch truck as echoes of “risk” and “safety” bounce around the empty recesses of their stomachs. Alternately, looking at the comments section of the Clover website proves other people are not as ready give up their grub.

One commenter “Suzanne” says “I hope this all ends soon and you’re back out in the truck so I can get my sandwich and some french fries!”

While another former employee attests to the health and safety priorities of the business saying “I’m letting family and friends know that the article is extremely misleading.”

Food trucks like Clover, most often serve a rather small niche menu. And this menu is often served to a rather niche clientele. Not everyone feels safe dining at such establishments but those who do, can be fiercely loyal. So what to do when your business comes under fire? Well, what Muir did, and is doing, seems to be working. He is approaching his business’s PR disaster much like he approaches the business itself…by engaging his customers directly.

Clover has always utilized the idea of complete transparency. Whether it be through sharing recipes, letting people know which farms their produce comes from or even posting their budget model to help prospective newbs like myself, they’ve always operated as an open-source company. Now, instead of shying away from the issue at hand, Muir has been posting almost-daily updates on health inspections, answering questions about procedures and offering plans for upgrading some the kitchen’s now scrutinized operations.

Will the impact on sales be massive? There is no true way of telling. But Muir’s harm-reduction strategy via an open line of communication certainly appears the best approach to recovering gracefully. He is reassuring customer’s that he cares and being reassured by his customers that they care.

So has this scared me away from the food truck business? Not yet. But examining some of the hiccups that can arise in owning such a business is an essential part of starting one. Here are some things I plan to pay special attention to before my rig hits road:

1. Consistency. Almost like following a recipe, airplane pilots have a checklist of things to tick off every time they take off. Whether we’re talking about what goes between the bread or how the fry-o-lator is cleaned. Don’t slack, it needs to be the same every time.

2. Mangement. One of the problems cited by Clover’s inspectors was lack of a proper Person in Charge. No matter how experienced an employee may be, they should always have oversight.

3. Training. Food trucks may appear to be small operations but oft times there are more people with their phalanges in your falafel than you’d care to imagine. Make sure all employees from dishwasher to driver are educated and certified according to standards.

4. Regulations: Be up to date on all health and safety (and parking!!) rules. They change for a reason and you need to change with them.

Arvid Brown graduated from Emerson College, took a few very long trips to the far side of the globe, and is now rediscovering America as the multimedia sensation he always knew he would be.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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