What it’s really like to operate a food truck in Boston

Straight from those who do, or have in the past.

Food trucks at the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Food trucks at the Rose Kennedy Greenway. –Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy

A report published in March by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation named Boston the country’s most challenging city for food trucks. Out of the 20 cities tested, Boston came in last for ease in obtaining a license or permit and regulatory operating costs.

While the city’s food truck owners ranged in opinion on if Boston really is the most difficult place to take food on the road, they agreed that the process is challenging and expensive.

“The people running trucks are like heroes. They overcome so many things every day, like generator breakdowns, people don’t show up for work,” Clover Food Lab CEO Ayr Muir recently told Boston.com. “When somebody’s out there operating, you know they’re doing a lot to pull that off.”

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Below, a few past and present food truck owners weigh in on their experiences in the city.

Clover

“I think it’s very expensive to operate here, but it’s also very organized,” Muir said. “It’s clear, and you know what the process is, and I don’t think that’s true in every city.”

The CEO said he believes the city’s food truck program is a reflection of a larger trend of Massachusetts “not being particularly business or startup friendly.”

“When you have such a big price tag, it means that people who are well-capitalized, who have access to money, might be able to start a truck, and people who don’t have so much money may not be able to, and that’s repeated again and again in Massachusetts,” he said. “I think it’s a shame to live in a place with — there’s so many bright and wonderful people in the Boston area, and I think that there’s a sort of quiet cost to the burden of regulations and bureaucracy that we don’t all see.”

Clover took its seven food trucks off the road this summer, choosing instead to focus on its restaurants.

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“We have a shortage of resources, like a lot of small companies, and it became a question for us of literally, like, ‘I have a wonderful manager, am I going to have them run a truck or a restaurant?’” Muir said. “The restaurant just gave us a tremendous return compared to the trucks. One restaurant will generate 10 times the profit of a truck.”

Still, saying goodbye to the fleet was bittersweet.

“We probably should have shut down trucks years ago, but I wasn’t willing to. Even when we did last summer, it was a hard choice,” Muir said.

Mei Mei

Now a casual stop for Chinese-American grub just beyond Boston University’s campus, the company started as a food truck in 2012.

“It was super confusing,” owner Irene Li said of going through the initial permitting process. “We joined the second year of the program, so there were certain things that they had sort of worked out, and certain things that remained very confusing. And a lot of it had to do with going to multiple different offices in order to get the answers that we needed. And then some of it also had to do with requirements for the food truck. We needed to have a screen over the window. We needed to have a three-bay sink and a handwashing sink, even though it was very unlikely that we were going to do any dishes on the truck.”

Li announced Mei Mei would restrict its food truck use to catering events in a March 14 blog post on the restaurant’s website.

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“As we look at the food truck business we’re seeing that it’s more and more competitive and less and less profitable. It’s always been unpredictable,” Li said. “We had to deal with that unpredictability, and now if we can choose not to and know our expenses and our revenue stream better because we’re booking events ahead of time, that can definitely be beneficial for us.”

Roxy’s Grilled Cheese

Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, however, doesn’t see their trucks going anywhere.

“It’s part of our DNA,” said James DiSabatino, the chain’s founder and owner. “Despite all the challenges, it’s really fun to be parked outside on a really nice day and serve happy people. It’s tough to get those vibes in a restaurant setting.”

Roxy’s started out as a food truck in 2011, just before the city of Boston launched its food truck program the same year.

“We got a food card permit through the City Parks Department,” DiSabatino said. “It’s similar to if you see a hot dog vendor at Park Street.”

According to DiSabatino, Boston’s current lottery program is “similar to the NBA draft,” but it’s worth it in the end.

“When food trucks get together in a nice, cool spot in the center of a community, it adds a lot to that area,” he said. “I hope Boston and other cities can see the cultural benefit for the city.”

The Chicken and Rice Guys

The Chicken and Rice Guys is another company doing double duty. The chain is comprised of three restaurants, two in downtown Boston and one in Medford, as well as four food trucks.

“Restaurants are more consistent. You get the same volume everyday,” Ian So, the owner, said. “[Food trucks] are more profitable.”

The Chicken and Rice Guys have had food trucks on the road for six years.

“Food trucks are a great way to introduce our food to the city of Boston,” So said. “[The restrictions] make it more difficult, but I don’t know if it inhibits our business. In some ways, we don’t like the difficulty.”

But in others, he said, the restrictions serve as a “good way to see if they’re ready to start a business.” Still, he’s hoping for some changes.

“We’d really like to see a uniform process throughout the state,” So said. “We’re in six cities and have to get inspected at each one, and have to get multiple trucks inspected.”

Roadie’s Diner

Erica Pratico, owner of Roadie’s Diner, also hopes a statewide permit is in Boston’s food truck future.

“I think the complaint that a lot of truckers have is that because everybody kind of operates within the Greater Boston area, if there was some sort of blanket permitting process that encompassed all of the areas,” she said. “Just so that we don’t have to keep paying fees to all different places.”

Most Boston-area food trucks don’t rely on the city of Boston’s annual lottery program alone for parking spots. Many can be seen doing business in neighboring cities, getting involved in the Rose Kennedy Greenway’s separate program, catering private events, or some combination of the three. Because of this, Pratico said she did not agree with the report.

“I feel like maybe that report was talking about if you only operated in the Boston lottery and it was Monday through Friday and you did it all seasons, this is what it would cost you,” she said. “It would be really hard to say, ‘This is what it’s like to open up a food truck in Boston,’ because everyone I’ve met has a different way of going about it.”

Moyzilla

“I remember the first year being really, really challenging just because, at the time, the program was a little bit newer. We were getting pointed in all sorts of directions and it was kind of half online and half on paper,” said John Moy, owner of the Asian street food truck Moyzilla. “I would say they’re making a good initiative to get everything online, but I think there’s still probably some kinks to work out.”

During that first year, in 2014, Moy said he remembers “asking a lot of questions, getting a lot of different answers,” though he said every year feels a little bit easier. He’s learned to navigate Boston’s system, though some aspects of the process still don’t make sense to him. For example, the Trimble GPS every food truck is required to purchase, have installed, and then pay a monthly data charge for.

“It doesn’t work, and the city doesn’t really monitor it at all, and we’ve been paying for it monthly ever since we’ve opened up,” he said. “That’s a little frustrating.”

Like many other trucks in the Boston area, Moyzilla does not solely operate through the city of Boston’s lottery. At the event this year, which took place on Feb. 20, Moy came away with one space.

“I’m definitely not going to be able to build a business around that,” he said. “We have to kind of think outside the box.”