Food Trucks Pave the Way for Brick-and-Mortar Stores

food trucksPhotos by Jess Benjamin

In December 2008, after three months of testing, the folks behind Clover–now a staple in the food truck community–were packing up their truck for good. They’d collected the data that they’d set out to get, tweaked the recipes based on customer feedback and explored their brand. They were ready to make moves on a brick-and-mortar location. The first phase was over.

“We were done with it. We mothballed it,” said Ayr Muir, founder and CEO of Clover Food Lab. He remembers packing everything away late into the night, blasting Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak at 2 a.m. “It was really sad.”

Owning and operating a food truck had never been part of the original plan for Clover. This was before the food truck fad had taken the nation, before the “Great Food Truck Race” aired on Food Network, before the City of Boston website had its own landing page devoted to these mobile kitchens. What we have come to know as food trucks, outside of a few who had survived attrition, didn’t exist. In the 1990s, Cambridge had placed a moratorium on food trucks. Boston didn’t even have a permit for which aspiring operators could apply. But none of that was a concern for Muir, at first.

“We just wanted to test the menu out for our restaurant,” Muir said one evening at the East Cambridge Clover location (1075 Cambridge St.), one of five stationary restaurants he’s opened in the past six years. “I was trying to hire a guy who runs a food truck on Mass Ave., and he wouldn’t do it. He told me I should open my own thing, which I didn’t want to do.”

The original plan was to sell a couple dozen sandwiches out of an existing food truck, interview the customers and perfect the recipes–the “lab” part of the equation. From there they would go on to open a brick-and-mortar store. Armed with the data provided by the food truck experiments, they would be able to move forward confidently on what would be a very large investment. Unable to find an existing vendor who would sell his food, Muir conceded, and they got their own truck.

clover counter

The counter at Clover’s Harvard Square location.

 

Clover would go on to pave the way for Boston’s food truck program, though Muir didn’t know that at the time. Fewer than 20 food trucks were allowed to operate in Cambridge, and most of those had been grandfathered in. In fact, the only reason that Clover got their first truck operating on the MIT campus was because another truck left. Clover was later invited to sell food on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, where most of the other vendors there would be carts, not food trucks. Muir wasn’t too thrilled, but agreed to it even though he thought they’d lose money.

“It’s hard for people to remember, but it was like no man’s land,” Muir said. “Sort of not a place anyone wanted to be. And I had agreed, I thought that maybe it would be good for our relationship with them in the future.”

Soon, the Greenway’s vendors grew to include a farmer’s market, for which late Boston Mayor Menino came to cut the ribbon. Muir convinced Menino to try a sandwich, and Menino became a frequent customer. It wasn’t too long before he led the city on a food truck initiative.

Proof of Concept

Fast forward six years. Food trucks have taken the Boston area by storm. In that short time, Clover has built six brick-and-mortar stores, three of them in Cambridge, and deployed seven food trucks. They are a success story of the clearest kind, not only leading by example but also providing resources for other food trucks. They helped Bon Me get their truck from the same dealership where Clover had bought theirs, and have instituted an annual conference where future vendors can learn the tricks of the trade. Last year, more than 300 ticketed attendees were there. The number of trucks operating in the Boston area has swelled from just over a dozen to upwards of 70, and the path from food truck to brick and mortar has become something of a textbook business formula.

mother juice inside

Inside Mother Juice.

For Jason Scott, co-founder of The Taco Truck (83 Mount Auburn St.), the mobile ethos carries over to the stationary store.  The brick-and-mortar locations still bear the name “The Taco Truck,” and though these buildings aren’t about to drive away anytime soon, the interior is designed to evoke the street food aura. The city bench-like seating and a counter that mimics the side of a food truck accompany a menu inspired by street food Scott encountered on his travels working for a fly fishing supply company. For Scott, like for Muir, the food truck served as a toe in the water on the way to a more permanent location.

“[The food truck] got us to a place where we have the confidence to put the dollars into the brick-and-mortar store,” said Scott, who is based in New Jersey. Around 2009, he began to see food truck traction picking up in the New York Metro area, and saw it as the ideal way to start serving his street food-inspired menu for a much lower investment.

Though less of a financial investment, operating a food truck came with its own set of challenges for Scott. From permitting to frozen water pipes, Scott said that a food truck can be an operational nightmare. On his second day out in Hoboken, he even had another operator threaten to burn down his truck. Despite the challenges, Scott says that owning the food truck allowed his team to more easily move to a permanent store, and to expand more quickly. In the last five years, they’ve added four locations in five states and will soon add another.

Compared to Clover and The Taco Truck, Mother Juice (65 West Kendall St.) is relatively new to the scene. In 2012, co-founders Ellen Fitzgerald and Laura Baldini launched a successful crowdsourcing initiative for a food truck specializing in fresh pressed juices. Now, less than two years after starting the truck, they’re operating a brick-and-mortar store in Kendall Square.

mother juice pair

From left: Laura Baldini and Ellen Firzgerald, co-founders of Mother Juice.

 

“[The food truck] was just a starting point. I mean, it’s just much, much more costly to open a store first,” said Baldini. “Food trucks were trending a couple years ago, and it just felt like the right move for us.”

When Mother Juice started out, there wasn’t really a juicing scene to speak of in Boston. This was before Cocobeet, which opened in Boston in May. The closest you could get cold-pressed juices was Medford, Baldini recalled. Opening a brick-and-mortar store would have been a huge risk, since there wasn’t too much evidence at the start that the city even wanted a juice bar. But having the truck allowed them to gauge that interest while building brand recognition, which Baldini believes helped Mother Juice take control of the discoverability factor.

“It works. I mean, we’re in Cambridge, but people come from Boston. They cross the river,” said Baldini.

Of course, having access to this kind of testing is obviously not necessary to have a successful brick-and-mortar store. Restaurant groups do this all time time. But Muir, Scott, Baldini and Fitzgerald don’t come from the restaurant industry. Food trucks didn’t just help them turn their concepts into successful restaurants–they proved that their ideas were viable.

“What we do right now, we make vegetables irresistible to all people,” said Muir, who has degrees in materials science and engineering from Harvard. “Eighty to 90 percent of our customers are not vegetarian, but there’s no meat on my menu. That’s crazy, and back then it was even more crazy.”

Baldini and Fitzgerald, who came from real estate and economic consulting, respectively, didn’t even know each other before Mother Juice. Baldini saw what Fitzgerald was trying to do and contacted her through the Internet. Now they’ve become great business partners, sharing a bond over a love for juice and a desire to spread that love.

“Vegetables are kind of magic, as ridiculous as that sounds,” Baldini said.

Moving Forward

The Mother Juice truck has been packed away for the winter. Juice is more of a seasonal product–a tough sell during Boston’s winters–and the pair want to focus on the success of the store. Yet now, only a few months after they opened in September, they’re already looking for a space to house their second store.

“We want to dominate the juice scene,” said Baldini.

Clover will keep expanding as well, and is slated to open three more brick-and-mortar stores and add another truck in 2015. But even with the success of the brick-and-mortar stores, there are no plans to pack away the food trucks that started the whole thing. Muir said that he doesn’t see a Clover that exists without food trucks, and Baldini can’t wait to get Mother Juice’s wheels back on the road this spring.

“It’s like a traveling store,” said Baldini. “We just want to have juice all over the place for everybody.”

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