Boston wasn’t first to the food-truck trend, by a long shot. When Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn, N.Y., were making a name for themselves there, it was tough for Boston restaurant owners even to put a few tables on the sidewalk.
What happened? Boston now has 101 food trucks permitted, according to City Hall. That’s a sliver of the 3,000 year-round food trucks permitted in New York City. But the number of Boston food trucks has quadrupled in four years. The number of New York food trucks has stayed the same.
“You can’t even get on the wait list any more,” said David Weber, founder and executive director of the NYC Food Truck Association. Permits are non-transferrable; to get in, new entrants are known to buy a permit on the gray market, he said. As a result, it’s harder for new restaurateurs to start on wheels. “There is some degree of innovation,” Weber told me, “but much more broadly I would say we see people experimenting with markets.”
Ayr Muir, whose Clover Food Lab has grown from one Cambridge food truck to a small empire in Boston, said the quality of New York food trucks has gone down. Many of the operators are now doing heat-and-serve, he said.
“If you’re like a chef or somebody who loves food and wants to find a new way to bring it to people, a truck is not the way to do that in New York. The people that do open trucks are people that are doing it for other reasons,” Muir told me. “They’re connected or they have some business dealings. It’s not because they are a passionate food person.”
Video: Watch what four Boston food truck operators are doing.
Weber disagreed that heat-and-serve or lower quality trucks could succeed among discriminating New Yorkers. Most trucks cook to order, he said, and a few even manage to come out with something unique. He cited the Langos Truck, which started in 2014 serving a kind of deep-fried Hungarian flatbread–“probably the only one Langos Truck in the U.S.,” the website proclaims.
Still, Weber acknowledges it’s easier to start a food truck in Boston. That’s because on permitting, Boston got it right, he said.
In April, 2011, Edith Murnane was Boston’s “food czar” as the city was preparing its new food truck ordinance. The ordinance itself has only three requirements: Every food truck must have a GPS and a central commissary, and permits are renewed annually.
The rest, she said, came out of conversations with operators and would-be operators, and has become standard practice. Rather than limiting the number of food truck licenses, Boston limits the number of locations on city streets and other public property. A lottery determines who gets time slots available at each one.
“That came out of the discomfort that the food truck operators had in terms of how do you schedule things,” Murnane said. “Who’s in the room when the scheduling happens? Let’s make it transparent.”
In addition, the city prohibits sugary drinks and requires every licensed operator to offer at least one healthy menu option. That last requirement has spurred thoughtfulness and creativity, Murnane said. “We’ve got a much healthier, creative food truck universe here than others.”
In New York, Weber might disagree with Boston food truck operators about which city has better food on wheels. But he does wish New York would borrow ingredients from Boston’s regulatory recipe.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurs here. There’s a lot of risk takers. There’s also a tremendously talented culinary establishment,” he said. “I think it would be a tremendous investment in the stature of street food. … Maybe the next Cronut is on a cart.”