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Return of the Food Trucks – New Offerings vs. Old Favorites

It’s that time of year again: flowers are blooming on the Common, the Red Sox had their opening day, and the best parts about Boston summer have started to reappear. This year, however, many of Boston’s beloved food trucks almost did not. Food trucks began to really take off in Boston in 2011, jumping on the growing national trend. Since then, the number of food trucks in the City has grown from around 25 to more than 70 this year. But such fast growth has not come without pains. The City of Boston has 530 time slots available for food trucks at 21 different sites around the City, not including the spaces available on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which are allocated under a separate lottery process.

The Boston Office of Food Initiatives, an office under the Mayor of Boston dedicated to the coordination of programs like food trucks, farmers markets, and urban agriculture, held its annual lottery for food truck locations in the middle of March. Returning truck operators, such as Bon Me and Stoked Pizza, were allowed to keep two of their previous lunchtime spaces. This prompted outrage from new food truck operators, and, in response, the City changed its position. Unfortunately, this change came only a few days before the lottery on March 14, prompting further outrage from the returning truck owners- some of whom had turned down alternative spaces in reliance on the promise of a recurring spot. In a fast move, representatives from the City met with all of the food truck operators, and were able to broker a compromise, moments before the lottery was scheduled to begin.

Previously, Boston held its lottery in January to coordinate with the Rose Kennedy Greenway lottery, which will host 33 food trucks this summer at four locations along the Greenway. The later lottery this year has caused many food trucks to snap up available spots outside of the city lottery. The SoWa Open Market, New England Open Market, and various events around the state (not to mention the many food-truck specific festivals planned for this summer) act as alternative venues for many food trucks.

These outside opportunities for the vendors could work against the Boston Office of Food Truck Initiative by leaving less popular trucks to fill in the open slots. Additionally, prices have increased over the past year (for instance, a Zone 1 shift rose from $100 to $125), in a way that disincentives breakfast or dinner slots- the price is based on location, not time of day, so there is no discount for off-peak hours. It is an open question of how well the novel and familiar food trucks will perform this summer, and whether the later lottery will impact the quality of offerings available to Boston workers, tourists, and residents.

Perhaps Boston simply cannot support the number of food trucks currently licensed? Perhaps the new food trucks will flourish this year, and returning trucks will continue to build a loyal customer base? One thing is certain: if the Boston Office of Food Initiatives hopes to change the face of mobile dining in the City, some of the processes in place will need to adapt to the needs of the food truck operators.

Related topics: Permitting, Real Estate, Restaurants, Retail