A food truck used to be a steppingstone to a restaurant. Imagine a comic soldiering from gig to gig, finally landing that TV deal. In the food world, where once a truck aspired to a brick-and-mortar address, now the opposite is happening: Big stars want to hit the road.
Nationally, successful restaurants like New York’s Taïm and San Francisco’s Crustacean and Thanh Long have gone mobile. Locally, established spots such as Area Four, Posto, Rami’s, and Redbones are getting or have wheels. What’s the appeal of leaving a cushy kitchen for a truck? Advertising, for one thing. “It’s a moving billboard,” says Michael Krupp, co-owner of Kendall Square’s Area Four and Union Square’s A4 Pizza. He opened a truck in 2013 that is currently on the road in Nashville.
Avi Shemtov opened Canton’s The Chubby Chickpea in 2010, serving Mediterranean food. In 2012, he took to the Boston streets. “This is the cool thing: We have a restaurant in the ’burbs and a truck in the city.” Shemtov says. “We see people that would never be at our restaurant. We get a young, urban crowd.”
And lest you think that restaurants-turned-trucks are the provenance of youth, even Four Seasons is hopping aboard the (literal) bandwagon. This month, the swanky hotel chain launched a truck tour along the East Coast, starting with Boston. On the menu: approachable treats like $9 porchetta sliders and $4 doughnut holes. Proceeds go to local charities. “People were so excited, because you wouldn’t expect a Four Seasons truck,” says hotel manager Marco Zanolari. “This was a way to connect with the community through creative food.”
Their motives go beyond delighting customers with porchetta and falafel, of course. Trucks engage employees and expand a brand.
“Trucks are a way to keep staff interested,” Area Four’s Krupp says. “It’s like being a reporter: Do you want to sit behind a desk, or do you want to go into the field? This gives staff a chance to interact with people and see more of the world.”
Most of all, running a truck is a low-risk, rewarding way for established restaurateurs to diversify. This isn’t to say it’s simple: Custom outfitted trucks can cost up to $200,000. Then there are the formalities such as inspections, permitting, parking. The City of Boston, Krupp notes, runs a lottery for coveted spaces. “There were about 89 people at the last lottery, and they were picking names out of a hat,” Krupp recalls. Woe to the hopeful food-trucker who draws a location with meager foot traffic.
Once settled in a location, though, chefs already have their own kitchens to work from — they must prep in a food-safe commissary — and they have somewhere to park at shift’s end. All that’s left to do is increase their fan base and pray for sunny weather.
“It’s great publicity for our restaurant,” says Redbones’s Rob Gregory, whose Somerville barbecue parlor opened in 1987, an eternity in restaurant years. “This is a way for creative people to try something new without the risk of increasing brick-and-mortar locations. We think of it like a moving art installation.” His truck is in Boston several times a week.
Brookline’s Rami’s, another staple from the Redbones era, is following suit. In October, the 24-year-old kosher restaurant will open a truck helmed by Ari Kendall and Matt Pultman. The pair struck a licensing deal wherein they’ll cook Rami’s staples, like falafel balls, prepared each morning from scratch at the Brookline headquarters. “For years, we’d been looking at the food truck phenomenon and wanted to jump aboard. When Matt and Ari approached me to do Rami on wheels, we knew it was the right move with how the industry is going now,” says manager Haim Cohen.
“I’d love to open more trucks, take the name we built for Rami’s, and spread it to other parts of New England and New York,” says Kendall. For now, he wants to bring the truck to Boston and Cambridge, building his reputation — and Rami’s revenue — in the process.
Even if revenue isn’t enormous, trucks can offset a slow season for a restaurant while leveraging the same staff and suppliers. “We now have multiple business windows open, and it helps. Our restaurant is typically really busy in winter; the truck is busy in the summer,” Chubby’s Shemtov says.
“Our profit is basically 50 percent marketing and 50 percent sales, and our product is in-house and our staff is in-house,” says Alpine Restaurant Group founder Joe Cassinelli, whose Posto restaurant has drawn crowds in Davis Square since 2010. He’ll launch a truck in Waltham in the coming weeks and also hopes to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant there. From his mobile perch, he serves a deliberate, abbreviated menu that’s simple to produce in close quarters and serves as a testing ground for the new location.
“We do four or five signature pies, an entree salad with a protein choice, and tiramisu,” Cassinelli says. “Our core is pizza. The trucks are designed to focus on doing one thing very well.”
Indeed, a truck is not a full kitchen. It’s not the place to get frisky; it’s a place to perfect a signature dish. To this end, the modern restaurant-to-truck genesis recalls the old days, when trucks or pushcarts specialized in one food, like hot dogs or pretzels.
Shemtov’s father ran a pizza truck near MIT in the late 1990s. “Back in my dad’s time, people went to a food truck for an unpretentious, consistent meal. I got into the truck business because I was getting frustrated with our restaurant’s menu, which was really wide,” he says.
So Shemtov focuses on falafel. Area Four’s Krupp does piadina, hand-held pizza. And Tenoch’s Alvaro Sandoval specializes in tortas. A year after launching his Medford taqueria in 2012, he opened a truck.
“People kept telling us how good our tortas are. We wanted to bring them to more people, and the truck’s making customers in turn go check out my restaurant,” he says. “We’ve seen huge results.”
And so for smartly run trucks, the road ahead comes full circle.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.