Wrapped in a black-and-white checkered fleece blanket, Anne-Marie Aigner zoomed around in her golf cart at Suffolk Downs in the early hours of a recent Saturday, barking orders at everyone and everything — including the threatening sky.
“You will cooperate,” Aigner scolded as she glanced at the gray, misting clouds.
She had been up up since 4:30 a.m., attending to the many details involved in pulling off the latest Food Truck Festivals of New England event. Aigner launched the start-up last year with her partner, Janet Prensky, and says three decades of event-planning didn’t prepare them for the complexities of food truck feasts. It’s like creating a giant gourmet food court on wheels, with too many cooks in too-small kitchens and hungry customers with seemingly insatiable appetites.
Food trucks, once a late-night indulgence — often for intoxicated college students and Twitter followers — are now dining destinations, bringing in big business across the country. The food truck phenomenon has infiltrated the suburbs, spawned reality TV shows, and created career paths for young foodie entrepreneurs.
Food trucks show up weekly to the SOWA market in Boston and elsewhere around the state, but Aigner and Prensky have largely cornered the festival market, hosting eight so far and another planned for Saturday in Framingham. These festivals routinely attract thousands of people who easily drop $50 to wait in long lines and sample whoopie pies, lobster rolls, and grilled cheese from mobile kitchens. For those who organize such events, it can be a logistical traffic jam.
During a 14-hour day at Suffolk Downs, Aigner corralled a bunch of independent-minded cooks into precise locations on the East Boston racetrack’s grounds, coordinated health and fire inspections, directed a small army of foodie volunteers, satisfied sponsor demands, monitored food supplies, apologized for long lines, and did anything else to make sure the operation ran smoothly. She is, by all accounts, a lioness of logistics. After a bumpy start to their business, Aigner and Prensky have started a division to run private food truck affairs and plan to host events through the winter.
“God help me,” Aigner, 66, sighed as she pushed her black Converse sneakers hard onto the gas pedal of the golf cart — which she calls her chariot — and narrowly avoided “rogue people” who got in her way.
With just over an hour before the at 11 a.m. opening, Aigner and Prensky were losing patience for anything less than perfection.The women know from experience that the many moving parts of a food truck mean each event is fraught with complications.
For instance, they were criticized this summer by customers after trucks ran out of supplies halfway through a festival at the University of Massachusetts Boston. People demanded full refunds even if they had a chance to eat at five or six trucks. Then, Travelzoo, which had offered a ticket promotion on the deal site, mistakenly sent out an e-mail that Food Truck Festivals of New England was going out of business.
And when an anemic crowd showed up in the parking lot of a New Hampshire mall, Aigner and Prensky came to the conclusion that it wasn’t good business to stage a festival on black pavement in 90-degree weather on the Saturday before July Fourth.
“There’s been bumps in the road all along,” Prensky, 55, said as she paced the parking lot at Suffolk Downs trying to hunt down volunteers who had promised to show up a half hour earlier. “But we think we’ve figured out the formula now.”
Prensky finally rounded out her cadre of “front-of-the-house” volunteers, decked out in red T-shirts emblazoned with “Foodie Official.” She demanded smiles, upbeat spirits, and good math from the people selling tickets — $25 for 20 — that could be redeemed at individual trucks. Sample menus were ready to distribute to arriving customers so they could figure out how many tickets they should buy (15 for a lobster roll at Lobsta Love). During the company’s early festivals, trucks handled cash directly, which slowed down lines.
Next to the race track, Aigner gathered the food truck workers and issued a short list of rules: Do not run out of food. But if you do, tell people in line so they don’t keep waiting. Find a volunteer if there’s a problem.
As the gates opened at 11 a.m., small crises were still breaking out. A health inspector detected a leak in the gas pipe for the Redbones BBQ truck. Several two-way radios were missing. Prensky couldn’t remember the password to process credit card payments. They forgot to put Roxy’s Grilled Cheese — the best-known truck — on the list of vendors.
But good things were happening, too. Roberta McGoldrick and her friends, food truck festival newbies, were drawing envious looks because of the buffet they created with samples of pulled pork tacos from Gabi’s Smoke Shack, grilled pastrami from Boston Super Dog, lobster grilled cheese and lobster mac ‘n cheese from Miss Bailey’s All American Comfort Food, a vegetable crepe from Paris Creperie, Redbones ribs, along with whoopie pies from The Whoo(pie) Wagon. They had spent about $100 on tickets.
By 1:15 p.m., the horse races were in full swing at Suffolk Downs and Lobsta Love owner Todd Saunders — also in charge of the Grilled Cheese Nation truck — was trying to maintain his energy after getting two hours of sleep. He had spent much of the night preparing more than 500 lobster sliders, 250 traditional lobster rolls, 96 pounds of bisque, and another 96 pounds of chowder.
“There’s so much effort that goes into putting this together that people have no idea when they step up to the counter,” Saunders said.
Nonetheless, these intense events appeal to food truck owners because they can usually count on large crowds in one place — instead of having to drive around to find customers. And the festivals help to attract new customers for their weekday business.
At 2 p.m., lines stretched along the racetrack as horses whizzed by at Suffolk Downs. Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, which won national acclaim after appearing on the Food Network program “The Great Food Truck Race,” was running low on food and dispatched runners to the kitchen in Jamaica Plain for more. But Roxy’s still ran out of everything except truffle fries by 4 p.m. — an hour before the festival ended.
Prensky and Aigner canvassed the grounds in the late afternoon and continued dispensing orders. After cleaning up and cashing out the trucks, they proclaimed the festival successful — and profitable. Prensky had a massage booked for the next day. Aigner, who earlier had hidden a box of lobster mac ‘n cheese in one of the ticket booths to take home, realized someone else found it first.