Boston claims to be a center for innovation. so why is City Hall smothering the fledgling food-truck industry?
Staff Meal owners Patrick Gilmartin, left, and Adam Gendreau have begged the city to let mobile food vendors succeed.
If there’s been one overriding theme to Mayor Menino’s fifth term, it’s been innovation. In 2010 he encouraged the creation of MassChallenge, a business incubator competition that funds early-stage startups to the tune of $1 million annually. In just its first two years, the challenge has established itself as one of the most prestigious venture capital–infusion competitions in the world, leaving the nerds in Cambridge complaining that Boston is stealing their lunch money. Also in 2010, Menino rebranded Fort Point and the Seaport as the “Innovation District,” the sort of civic declaration that usually carries the same weight as a proclamation of the official state sandwich, but in this case actually seems to be having an effect: Vertex Pharmaceuticals, with its $1.4 billion in 2011 revenue, was lured to the Seaport from across the river by the promise of $12 million in tax breaks and vast tracts of undeveloped waterfront land at Fan Pier. The idea is that Vertex will serve as the district’s flagship resident, around which smaller companies will swarm.
Given the success of these initiatives, it’s hardly a surprise that the city has taken the same top-down approach to another, more modest experimental industry. In late 2010 Menino began touting the Food Truck Challenge, which introduced those of us who’ve never worn a hardhat — or spent any time recently in New York or L.A. — to the revolutionary concept of grabbing a bite off the back of a truck. More than a dozen rolling eateries launched after the challenge wrapped up in 2011. The food they offered was hardly cutting edge (cupcakes and grilled cheese sandwiches), but the tens of thousands of meals they served proved there was a demand for this kind of business. That success paved the way for a new batch of trucks in 2012, which featured more worldly cuisines (French crêpes, Chinese street food). A home run, right? Actually, no.
The Food Truck Challenge may have been fun, but it also highlighted a problem in the city’s approach to encouraging innovation: The same strategy that leads to a MassChallenge or an Innovation District just doesn’t work for small businesses like food trucks. It turns out, in fact, that our city is actually making things harder rather than easier for these entrepreneurs. Cities like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, have welcomed these businesses with open arms — and growling stomachs — but Boston is totally baffled about what to do with grassroots companies operating on the fringes of bureaucratic oversight. Where true innovators say, “How do we make this work?” our city government’s default reaction — at least when it comes to new concepts — is “Here’s all the reasons why it can’t.”
Until somewhere around the end of the 19th century, Boston was the leading city in the U.S., and “Yankee ingenuity” was less a corn-fed folkism than a simple truth about a city and region that married scientific prowess to a rapidly growing capital base and world-class industrial muscle. Nearly a century before the first e-mail was sent between two computers in Cambridge, Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call in Boston. Today’s Financial District was back then dotted with machine shops, patent lawyers, and other firms that supported gaslight-age Zuckerbergs. These traditions live on in the labs of MIT and the hundreds of small tool-and-die shops still lurking in our industrial backwaters, but recent decades have seen us lose our technical crown to Silicon Valley and our venture-financing advantages to New York. When it comes to experimentation, Boston has been surpassed.
Against this backdrop, restaurants on wheels might seem an insignificant development, but really, their existence is innovation in a truck-shaped nutshell. For many aspiring restaurateurs and chefs, opening a full-blown restaurant can be a financial impossibility, because launching even a modest joint requires hundreds of thousands of dollars, and because failure rates are high. (A 2005 Cornell study found that about 60 percent of restaurants fail in the first three years.) By comparison, putting a food truck on the road costs around $60,000, an investment that includes an asset — a truck — that can be resold if that Polynesian-Scandinavian-fusion concept sinks. The reduced costs attract a larger and more-diverse group of entrepreneurs, which leads to inventive menus. Food trucks are serving everything from tea eggs and Vietnamese-style sandwiches to appetizing vegetarian food, and they’re doing it in a way that often costs less than $10 and is sometimes tastier than restaurant fare.
All of that sounds great, and if your knowledge of Boston’s nascent food-truck industry is limited to the reams of gushing press, you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole business has been a breeze, that anyone with a decent idea and a truck can start selling their grass-fed lamb gyros with goat-milk tzatziki tomorrow. The truth, though, is that food trucks are among the most tightly regulated businesses in the city.
Location, of course, is a key component to a restaurant’s success, and given the flexibility of food trucks — they do have wheels, after all — their advantage should be obvious: You can park them in high-traffic locations with lots of hungry people. Unfortunately, trucks here are allowed to operate in just 11 locations in the city’s core between Mass. Ave. and the harbor. Furthermore, a potential gold-mine site like the busy pedestrian area at the Boston Public Library is limited to just one truck at a time, while the restaurant wasteland that is the Financial District is authorized for just two. And rather than promote what-the-market-will-bear experimentation, the city has tried to use the trucks to solve the complex social problem of a lack of healthful food in poorer neighborhoods. In other words, we’re trying to shoehorn them into less-profitable and desirable locations, such as Ashmont Station or Egleston Square. It’s worth noting that no trucks have yet signed up for those spots in 2012.
In all of this, we’re ignoring the successes of other cities, including Austin, Texas (1,600 licensed trucks, pushcarts, and trailers), Cleveland, Ohio (70 trucks have opened since just last year), and Portland, Oregon (home to 170 food trucks and carts), which have all figured out that it’s beneficial to cluster a lot of trucks in one area. Portland, for example, has a massive group of about 20 trucks and carts in its central business district. We, however, only have three tiny clusters: the aforementioned Financial District (two trucks), City Hall Plaza (three), and the Stuart Street side of Copley Square (three). And since our trucks are generally allowed to park in one spot for just a few hours — and for no more than a few times a week at any single location — we’re undermining the word-of-mouth and repeat customers that are essential to a thriving business.
City Hall’s priorities are so messed up, in fact, that the city actually shut down a popular food-truck spot last winter. After building a clientele, the Cupcakory truck was cast out of City Hall Plaza when the space was closed for the winter. At a food-truck forum, owner Diane DeMarco described it as a “ very dark time” for her business. Why would the city close the space? Do they think people stop eating during the winter?
All of Boston’s red tape drove Adam Gendreau, a co-owner of Staff Meal — one of our finest trucks — to write an open letter in January, pleading with the city to authorize more sites, especially ones in parts of Boston where people actually want food trucks. “The reality,” Gendreau wrote, “is that the city hasn’t implemented a system that will allow food trucks to succeed. … I fear that if more spots aren’t made available, the industry will see 2012 with little to no cultural growth, if it sees much of anything at all.”
So why are we so controlling when it comes to location? The answer, according to what Edith Murnane, the city’s director of food initiatives, told WBUR, seems to be parking and the competition the trucks create for brick-and-mortar restaurants. (Murnane did not return my calls for comment.) Well, you know what? It may seem kind to make sure a taco truck doesn’t park in front of a Mexican restaurant, but it’s not. If a restaurant, complete with a full kitchen, electric lighting, heating, air conditioning, and a restroom — not to mention seats and tables — can’t cut it against two guys in a truck with a beer cooler and an overgrown Coleman camp stove, it’s time for the restaurateur to consider a career change.
More important, Murnane’s comments betray an attitude that food trucks and other mobile vendors are essentially parasitic, stealing away existing customer traffic. The truth is, they can actually bring new traffic to an area — just as much as any other business, if they’re allowed to flourish. Consider those food-truck clusters in Portland — think those diners aren’t spending money at other businesses before and after their meals?
And let’s move beyond just food trucks. It turns out that the city has also done its best to chase away two retail trucks that sell clothing by area designers. At the invitation of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Emily Benson’s rolling boutique, the Fashion Truck, spent a successful month over the holidays in front of the shuttered Borders in Downtown Crossing. When she tried to find a more-permanent spot, she ran into roadblocks with the city. Why? She was told, through intermediaries, that the city didn’t want her type of vending in Downtown Crossing.
Howard Travis and Derrick Cheung, meanwhile, started Green Street Vault last year to sell the work of local streetwear designers such as Annie Mulz and Society Original Products. Parking in the Back Bay, they quickly built a fan base, including 1,600 “heavily suburban” Twitter followers. Travis admits that the Back Bay was a roll of the dice in terms of city regulations. But he saw opportunity in the neighborhood’s many boarded-up storefronts: “Put us where they need foot traffic,” he says. Instead of using the truck as a magnet, however, Inspectional Services officers told Green Street Vault that they weren’t allowed to park and vend in a metered spot, because, as one city official told them, “no infrastructure exists” for what they’re doing. Huh? It’s a store-on-a-truck. What infrastructure does it need besides a space to park?
You want to know what serious innovation would look like here? Forget Downtown Crossing, where the trucks could make the area look less like a set from The Walking Dead, or even the area around the forlorn Café Esplanade by the Hatch Shell. The real prize is Boston Common. Imagine putting out picnic tables and chairs — like you find in most European urban parks — and allowing trucks to sell a glass or two of adult beverages along with their food. For the vast majority of city residents who can’t easily swallow the $100-per-person tab you quickly run up at many downtown restaurants, a dinner of foie gras on a stick and a glass of wine for south of $20 on a warm evening under the stars would create the sort of unique experience that reminds you why living in a city can be awesome even if you missed your chance to marry money. For those fretting about despoiling the bucolic landscape with demon rum, it’s hard to imagine a couple hundred foodies being more disruptive than the hordes of winos and junkies already passed out on the lawn.
The ultimate lesson is that while city governments have only the most limited of tools available to conjure the animal spirits that give rise to sustainable innovation, they have entire buildings full of machinery that can kill it faster than a Predator drone. Where government thrives on consensus and consistency of approach, new industries are created through disruption and change. People and businesses with well-feathered nests rarely welcome newcomers, and will happily yank every lever City Hall offers to grind things to a halt, regardless of whether doing so is in the public interest.
Business concepts that don’t fit neatly into centuries-old patterns of trade may cause some head scratching for regulators, but the city needs to learn to move faster and take a chance or two — just like the startups in the MassChallenge do. While we’re busy patting ourselves on the back for dipping our pinky toes in the shallow end of the innovation pool, we’re missing opportunities to bring new life to the urban landscape. So let’s get out of the way and allow local entrepreneurs to build what they think the people want. You see, it isn’t the Seaport that needs an innovation district — it’s City Hall.