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Good Truckin’ Food

Off Campus | November 17, 2014

Every Tufts student has heard of Moe’s: the local food truck, run by the man himself, parked strategically between two fraternities. Once the clock strikes eleven, Moe’s night commences; he starts serving up dogs and burgers for masses of students stumbling towards his truck, all craving a late night bite.

“I went to college where there was no place to eat late at night,” said Moe, explaining the impetus for his idea of a truck on a local campus.

Working the Tufts scene for eight years now, Moe is widely known at the university and in the larger Somerville community, which he has been serving for the past twenty years. Although his food caters to a younger clientele seeking out his truck for a post-party snack, Moe knows that he is part of a larger movement of food trucks outside of Packard Avenue that has been expanding both in Boston and across the country. Moe is smart. He profits from his consistency and practicality. While Moe’s is a staple for Tufts students, Boston offers a wider variety of food trucks, becoming a vital player in the reinvention of “fast food.”

Food trucks are dominating metropolitan America, appealing to groups of all ages. While the economic meltdown of 2008 obstructed restaurant industries from enjoying steady influxes of clientele, the crisis gave rise to the food truck industry. After the collapse, entrepreneurs took advantage of the cheap price of jump-starting a food truck compared to opening and managing a restaurant. From then on, according to IBIS World, the food truck industry has seen an annual growth rate of 12.4 percent. Indeed, a recent projection by Intuit Inc. estimates that in just over two years, food trucks will make up a 2.7 billion dollar industry.

Trucks are popping up from coast to coast, most notably in trendy meccas like Portland, Austin, and New York. The allure of the trucks stems from their ability to provide affordable gourmet food to an audience of hungry urbanites who, of course, have somewhere else they need to be.

But what are the upsides for the owners of these emerging mobile businesses? One advantage is having such mobility and not being tied down to a storefront restaurant. Frank, the owner of Boston food trunk Benny’s Crepes Café, enjoys the mobility of a truck. He admitted that opening a restaurant, which many food trucks have done after the success they’ve seen on the road, is not in his plans.

“In the truck, I’m able to be outside all the time and work wherever I want. It’s completely different than a typical job,” Frank said.

Previously, Frank had a 30 year career as a bookbinder before his business headed south due to the popularity of eBooks. In keeping with contemporary trends, Frank decided to enter into a new modern business. Drawing from his past experiences, he understood that consumers want convenience and immediate gratification, whether in the form of downloading an eBook or grabbing a crepe on the go. He even crafts his crepes in the shape of a tightly rolled tortilla, easy to eat on the move.

Considering the popularity of the fad, there exists stiff competition between food trucks. In an effort to keep competition minimal and fair, all available truck locations are divvied up through a lottery administered by the City of Boston. Most frequently, there are multiple trucks at a single location, such as the Harvard Science Center, which allows for healthy competition amongst the trucks in handling the steady flow of student food traffic.

One truck in Boston has built up the largest fan base: Bon Me. This food truck conglomerate has four trucks roaming around the city in addition to a storefront restaurant in Kendall Square. Frank, whose truck happened to be stationed adjacent to Bon Me around lunchtime in Harvard Yard, conceded that Bon Me takes approximately 75% of the business amongst the trucks parked in the area.

“I think that the reason why Bon Me is so successful is because Asian food is extremely popular right now. They do what they do well with effective marketing, making them among the largest food truck business in Boston,” he explained.

On the flipside, Frank rejoices that one of the great perks of running a food truck is the trading of food between the varying trucks themselves. Janet from Roxy’s Grilled Cheese pointed out that all of the food trucks are part of a team mentality. Part of the “Great Food Truck Race” of Season 3 on The Food Network, Roxy’s knows how to set aside the competitive nature of being in a service industry—and instead, partake in the camaraderie.

“We even help each other park and lend one another ingredients if someone runs out of something we happen to have,” she said.

With over 100 colleges and universities in the Boston area and a quarter of a million college students, these trucks target a mainly youthful demographic. When we spoke to customers waiting in line for Bon Me, it was apparent that the trucks had successfully established a fan base. The lower priced, good quality food that the trucks serve outweighs an unfulfilling meal at the dining hall for some undergraduate students. A Harvard freshman we met came to Bon Me for the first time after seeing what they were serving in his dining hall today and “just couldn’t do it.”

Across the country, colleges have turned to food trucks as a way to expand on-campus dining options. Iowa State, Penn State York, and William and Mary are just a few examples of universities that welcome food trucks to their campuses and allow students to pay for their food with college dining cards. We asked Frank from Benny’s Crepe Café if he ever attempted coming to Tufts University, to which he replied that at one point in time, there was a petition to allow food trucks in Somerville, but they have a very limited program.

In handling customer interactions, both Frank and Moe know many of their clients by face, name, and even hometown. As we interviewed Frank, he recognized one of his customers in line: “Hey Jonah,” he warmly welcomed a Harvard student who approached his truck. “How’s it going?” A larger business, even on the scale of Bon Me, may not be able to establish these kinds of personal relationships with customers. Similar to Frank, Moe attested to knowing a large percentage of Tufts customers.

“Sure, I recognize kids. I usually call them by the state they’re from,” he said.

The appeal of smaller food trucks is complemented by the charm and authenticity of their business. Moe and Frank, we could indefinitely conclude, are modest men, passionate about their businesses and customers. When we received our order of a strawberry banana nutella crepe from Frank, we handed out a ten dollar bill, but he simply shook his head, “This one’s on the house,” he smiled, handing us two cups of steaming cider we hadn’t even requested.

Crammed in a Starbucks to avoid the windy weather, splitting a Mighty Rib Grilled Cheese on a Friday night, we reviewed our week-long food truck expedition. We had definitely encountered adverse weather conditions, along with a multitude of navigation dilemmas. But, over everything, we ate really great food without spending much money or waiting long. And we loved that the assortment of food we enjoyed had traveled all around Boston, carrying authentic stories – those of individuals who recognized a unique opportunity, took a risk, and found their own street corner to park their passion.