Business

Food trucks set to return as deal satisfies new and existing vendors

Catherine Aust,  who worked at the Bon Me food truck, served hungry patrons during lunchtime in 2014.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/file

Catherine Aust, who worked at the Bon Me food truck, served hungry patrons during lunchtime in 2014.

It’s a simple idea that has proved to be incredibly popular in Boston: food trucks parked around town offering falafel, grilled cheese, tacos, cupcakes, and a smorgasbord of other quick-lunch offerings.

But as the city expands the program — four trucks will join the fleet of more than 70 for the season, which starts April 1 — it’s getting more complicated to keep existing vendors happy while offering more choices to customers.

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The system hinges on allocating 530 time slots at 21 sites, some more preferable than others. A last-minute flip-flop by the city had old and new truck owners confused and concerned about where they might end up.

Late last year, the city notified returning operators that they would be allowed to keep up to two of the same lunchtime spots they had last season. The veterans embraced the initiative because it allowed them to return to areas where they had built loyal followings, instead of leaving it up to chance at the city’s annual location-assignment lottery.

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But new truck owners cried foul, prompting a last-minute reversal by the city just one business day before the March 14 lottery. That, in turn, upset returning vendors, many of whom had made business decisions for the upcoming season based on the city’s commitment of guaranteed spots.

Toirm Miller, operator of the Stoked Pizza truck, was among those who turned down a profitable Thursday afternoon spot in a private location under the assumption that he would be returning to his old city spot on Thursdays.

“I felt like I had been punched in the gut,” Miller said. “We were going to lose a space that we had spent a whole year developing. It was going to be up to chance whether we would get that space again.”

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Vendors quickly mobilized, voicing their outrage to city officials of the financial ramifications that overturning the initiative would have.

“There was confusion and anxiety and I didn’t want that,” said Felix G. Arroyo, the city’s chief of health and human services.

Moments before the lottery was to take place, Arroyo and Tosha Baker, the city’s food initiatives director, met with the 59 food truck vendors participating in this year’s program and asked them to help come up with a compromise that would fairly assign coveted spots to new and veteran vendors.

By a roll call vote of 57 to 2, the vendors agreed to allow returning food trucks to keep up to two sites with specified time slots if they agreed to withdraw from the first two rounds of the lottery. Vendors who kept one spot would withdraw from the first round of the lottery. That would give newcomers a better shot at some locations.

Food trucks on Greenway and Dewey Square.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Food trucks on Greenway and Dewey Square.

This year’s lottery went on for 11 rounds, with vendors vying for the best 175 shifts in the city’s prime lunch spots. The remainder of the city’s 530 shifts, which include late-night hours, were available on a first-come-first-served basis the day after the lottery.

Miller, who sells wood oven baked pizza out of his truck, said the compromise was fair. He withdrew from the first round of the lottery in order to keep his Thursday lunch spot on the coveted Clarendon Street area, surrounded by office workers and Copley Square visitors.

As the city grapples with how to add more food truck locations, vendors know that to be profitable, they must turn to alternatives outside of the city’s program, including the state-owned Rose Kennedy Greenway, the most popular location in the city for food trucks.

“The city has developed new spaces, but as far as what they call ‘prime spaces’ there’s only a certain amount,” Miller said. “If you’re a new food truck operator and you’re counting on getting spaces in that lottery to build your business, that’s not an option.”

Entering its seventh food truck season, the Greenway will host 34 trucks, a net addition of four from last season, said Michael Nichols, the nonprofit’s chief of staff. The mile-and-a-half area nestled between popular tourist attractions and office buildings attracts at least 1 million visitors a year, Nichols said. Food trucks stationed on the Greenway served 640,000 people last year, up from 412,000 in 2014, he said.

Ten new trucks on the Greenway will feature Iraqi, Korean, and Jamaican fare, as well as cupcakes, fried chicken, and burgers. Six trucks aren’t coming back from last year.

Meg Crowley will be among the vendors returning to the Greenway this year. Crowley owns Third Cliff Bakery, which she operates out of an inverted tricycle — two wheels in the front and one in the back — that she and her father built in their basement. She said she attended an information session with city officials to enter the lottery, but ultimately passed, opting to do business exclusively on the Greenway.

“I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything,” said Crowley, who caters to the morning and lunch crowds. “The nature of my business is kind of food truck-alternative.”

Even with limited spots that get more crowded each season, Miller, of Stoked Pizza, said that being part of the city’s program is still a relevant component for vendors, who have formed a tight-knit community.

“I think it’s important to keep the momentum going with the city program,” he said. “As much as I’ve said it’s a bit saturated, I think there’s still room to develop some new spaces. We’re small businesses that contribute a lot to the city. We serve a need.”

Carly Poh took orders in the Stoked Pizza Co.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Carly Poh took orders in the Stoked Pizza Co.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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