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Boston food truck industry expands

Ribs were sold at the SOWA open market.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Ribs were sold at the SOWA open market.

The food truck business in Boston is really starting to cook.

Come April, the city will have 56 trucks dishing food across Boston neighborhoods, up from just 15 when the city first cautiously kicked the tires of the trend in July 2011. Food trucks are coming to new parts of the city, including East Boston, Roxbury, and Charlestown, and those locations that started with one truck now have three or more, bringing a diverse mix of cuisines and cultures to the streets of a city once famous for its parochial tastes.

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Trucks across the city now serve ­everything from Southern comfort food to Asian barbecue. The trend has become so popular that local truck chefs have their own food festivals and cooking contests, and some operators are even opening their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. Meantime, there is a growing network of businesses such as truck repair and emergency staffing to support them.

“It’s become a job creator,” said Edith Murnane, director of food initiatives for the City of Boston. “It’s incubating new businesses, and it has become a real launching pad, for healthy, creative food in the city.”

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

The Food Truck Throwdown offered diverse cuisines.

One of the biggest success stories is Clover Food Lab . The company, which emphasizes fresh, seasonal foods, opened with a single food truck with two employees a few years ago, and now has a workforce of 250 people.

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The company operates two restaurants and seven trucks, from Dewey Square to the Longwood Medical Area to Harvard Square. Its founder and chief executive, Ayr Muir, said he is planning to open four more restaurants this year, including the company’s first suburban location, in Burlington.

“It’s been a lot of work,” said Muir. “I don’t sleep a whole lot, but I love what I do.”

To be sure, the influx of food trucks has upset some restaurant owners, who are concerned about losing parking and customers to mobile competitors.

“I understand the restaurants’ complaints. They are investing huge amounts to serve their customers,” said Peter Christie, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “But I also understand food trucks saying, ‘This is an emerging market and we’re trying to make it work.’ ”

Christie also noted that many restaurateurs are getting in on the trend, with the popular Blue Ribbon Barbecue and others rolling out new food trucks, in the suburbs as well as in the city.

“Overall, the restaurant scene in Boston is doing incredibly well,” Christie said. “And I think the mayor and city planners have done a good job controlling” the food trucks.

City regulations prevent trucks from opening within a 100 feet of a stationary competitor serving the same type of food. For example, a pizza truck could not open next to a Santarpio’s or Regina Pizzeria without risking a fine, as well as the ire of workers from the restaurant.

All trucks must be inspected for food safety and public safety before hitting the streets, and again after they begin operating. But Murnane said the extra workload has not forced the city to hire additional inspectors.

Starting in April, she said, the city will have nearly 20 public food truck locations, including four spots with multiple trucks including the Christian Science Plaza and at Kilby and Milk streets in the Financial District.

One of the most successful locations is the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, which first tested food trucks in a 2010 pilot program.

The nonprofit conservancy that runs the parks system expects to earn $250,000 this year in leasing revenue, up from $25,000 in the first year; this spring it will have 22 food vendors, compared with just six at the outset.

“With so many more trucks, we’re seeing a lot of competition for the best spaces,” said Jesse Brackenbury, chief operating officer of the conservancy. “This industry has a lot of creative, entrepreneurial people, and it’s fun to work with them and see their success.”

Last year, the Greenway hosted the city’s first annual Food Truck Throwdown, a competition between vendors from New York and Boston. The event attracted more than 20,000 people, and will be held again this year, along with new events involving vendors from other cities.

City officials said they expect the program will continue to expand, with existing and new vendors seeking to spread out across the city.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2012

Ribs were sold at the SOWA open market

“There is still a good amount of opportunity out there, and much of it is in the neighborhoods,” said Murnane, noting that this year’s new vendors are stretching out to the Charlestown Navy Yard and across Boston Harbor to Maverick Square in East Boston. “The food truck industry is just in the midst of emerging.”

Peter Lynch and Alison Fong — the husband-and-wife owners of the Asian food truck Bon Me — are looking to roll out a third truck while planning their first restaurant, in Kendall Square.

Lynch, who left a job in finance to run the operation full time, said the city’s initial food truck pilot program was the nudge he and his wife needed to jump at the dream of opening their own restaurant.

“My wife is a trained chef, but I had never worked in food service,” he said. “We started with the idea of creating a concept we could expand. We were optimistic it would be a popular option for the downtown lunch crowd, and it’s gone very well for us. We’re hopeful that we’ll continue to grow.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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