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Food trucks come with learning curve

Babson student teaches course on hot industry

Babson College senior Spencer Hughes (center) invited entrepreneur Martin Berry (right) and market researcher Jeff Novack as guest speakers. Babson College senior Spencer Hughes (center) invited entrepreneur Martin Berry (right) and market researcher Jeff Novack as guest speakers. (MICHELLE MCDONALD FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Peggy Hernandez
Globe Correspondent / March 7, 2012
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WELLESLEY - It was inevitable, given the popularity of food trucks, that a university-level course on this nascent business would be offered. Less obvious is the way in which it would be taught. At Babson College, the professor is a student.

Spencer Hughes, 21, a likable and self-assured senior, has been teaching “The Food Truck Industry’’ course since last month. He has so far covered history and regulations, hosted a guest lecturer, and led a field trip to Boston’s Dewey Square. The class will culminate with an on-campus visit by Somerville’s Redbones BBQ food truck.

The course coincides with the regional growth of the food truck industry. Only one year ago, the City of Boston began licensing food trucks on municipal property after offering a Food Truck Challenge in 2010. The second season begins in April and ends next March. Brookline plans to inaugurate a six-month pilot program next month, and Cambridge will soon begin its first program after a pilot effort last year. “It’s both an exciting time and a trying time,’’ says Diane DeMarco, owner of Cupcakory food truck. “I absolutely believe food trucks are here to stay. I have a lot of faith in it.’’

DeMarco thinks the industry struggles with lack of understanding, and in fact, until last summer, even Hughes, a self-described foodie, eyed them with suspicion. “There’s this stigma of food trucks as ‘roach coaches’; that was my idea of them,’’ says Hughes, who hails from Michigan. “I was very apprehensive. Finally, one day, I had to try one.’’

Hughes’s first visit was to the Clover Food Lab truck on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, near his summer job. He was impressed with the vegetarian menu, then worked his way through the menus of other trucks. When Babson announced last fall that it was inaugurating student-led seminars, Hughes made his pitch. He was among 28 seniors vying to teach five spots.

Dennis Hanno, dean of undergraduates, says Hughes’s proposal resonated with Babson’s ethos. “The marriage of an entrepreneurial focal point and hot area of topic made it timely,’’ says the dean. No credit is given, save for a transcript notation, and lectures are held Fridays, traditionally a day off at Babson. Yet 13 students enrolled in the course.

Mariana Moreno of Roslindale, 20, a junior, signed up. “I love how every food truck can be its own concept,’’ says Moreno, who had never eaten at one. On the class trip, she happily munched on crispy vegetable spring rolls from Momogoose.

The challenge for Moreno is accessibility, the same lament heard in Boston. The city’s pilot program revealed tensions over the limited number of desirable locations and how those spots rotated, balanced with a need to increase availability in underserved communities. The program has since been modified.

The lottery for Boston’s one-year licenses will be held on Thursday. Edith Murnane, the city’s food initiatives director, says vendors will draw for one-day, individual breakfast, lunch, and dinner rental slots at 17 sites listed on the city website (City Hall Plaza is licensed April through November). Once the names of all food trucks are drawn, they’ll be reentered for redrawing until all slots are filled. “We’re trying to give enough space to enough people to do as many things as possible,’’ Murnane says. “We really want this to be a positive element on the streets of Boston.’’

One thing the city can’t do, Murnane says, is “turn all public parking into food truck sites.’’ The cap on prime spots led vendors to seek permission from neighboring Brookline, initiating the pilot program, says Kara Brewton, the town’s economic development officer. Brookline is offering six sites in town and four at outer area parks. Applications were due Feb. 29; the first was from the owners of Paris Creperie in Coolidge Corner, who want to broaden their reach. Town selectmen will grant licenses and assign locations later this month; the program will begin in late April. Cambridge will offer two spots along the Charles River. Licenses will be valid from late April until November.

Food truck program revisions nationwide have kept Hughes vigilant; he uses online materials since there are no texts. Clover Food Lab held a food truck economics session last June; it will again feature vendors for an education panel on March 22 at its Inman Square site.

Hughes also includes real-life entrepreneurs in his seminars. Earlier this month, Martin Berry spoke in the class about operating the Redbones truck and a new food truck venture he’s working on. “A food truck can cost $60-$80-$100,000 and if you don’t have a viable place to make money you’re not going to survive,’’ says Berry. Costs vary depending on the type of food prep necessary and compliance with health code laws.

At Dewey Square, Hughes urges a visitor to sample Clover’s rosemary-infused fries. He raves about a Roxy’s grilled brie sandwich with walnuts. But his heart belongs to barbecue and his biggest challenge during the course has been to bring the Redbones truck to Babson.

“There’s all these hoops and whistles,’’ Hughes says about efforts to get a Wellesley health permit. “It’s going to happen.’’

It’s not every day that a teacher ends a course with a feast on wheels.

Peggy Hernandez can be reached at mphernan1 @gmail.com.

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