On Taco Party’s first day as a food truck, the stove’s gas valve broke.
“I burned my eyebrows off, and it was my first day,” owner Keith Schubert recalls. “From the get-go it was brutal. Just brutal,” he adds.
Local operators say that nothing compares to the slog of running a food truck—even owners who also run restaurants, which are infamous for involving long hours and demanding days. Running a food truck means navigating fickle weather, desolate spots, tight kitchens, and mechanical mayhem.
But wheeled restaurants have their own appeal, as well: Launching a food truck lets would-be restaurant owners test their concept with a variety of audiences before taking the bigger step of signing a lease or buying a space.
“People realized [starting a food truck] was a much cheaper way to get a foot in the door if you wanted to have a restaurant,” says Schubert, who launched Taco Party as a truck in 2013 and serves Mexican-inspired vegan tacos.
Working in a truck is rarely an owner’s end-goal, he says: “You’d be hard pressed to find a food truck owner who is all about the truck.”
Launching a truck first has paid off for Taco Party, though—Schubert drew on its success to open a brick-and-mortar location in Somerville’s Ball Square in 2015.
“[Running the truck has] been a huge door into all this,” Schubert says, gesturing to Taco Party’s dining room.
Taco Party’s still hitting the pavement, and is one of 16 food trucks that are slated to be part of the City of Cambridge’s food truck pilot this year.
The trucks are taking up shifts by North Point Park, City Hall, and Cambridgeport through the end of October. While food trucks often pop up at Harvard University, MIT, and on other private properties, this is the first city-approved program.
The inaugural class includes newbies like Bella Food Truck and The Pull Up, more established vendors like Frozen Hoagies, Bon Me, and Taco Party, and big brands like Ben & Jerry’s.
Ten truck owners identify as women or minorities, which enhances economic equity in the food industry—a stated goal of the pilot—according to Christina DiLisio of the city’s Community Development Department (CDD).
The city was careful to “assuage fears” when it came to food truck competition with brick-and-mortar restaurants, says Lisa Hemmerle, director of Economic Development for the CDD.
The department collected menus from restaurants near the three spots to make sure there wasn’t direct conflict with what the trucks were serving, according to Hemmerle.
Schubert’s food truck journey began in Queens, N.Y., where he secured a beat-up truck for $2,500 that was a former delivery vehicle for FedEx and DHL. He got it back to Massachusetts and had a kitchen installed for about $30,000.
The truck requires a couple thousand dollars each year to keep it on the road, he says.
“The truck is a pain in the ass,” says Schubert. “It’s a kitchen with fragile kitchen equipment bouncing down the road that’s not meant to have that stuff [on it].”
Finding success with a food truck comes down to “hustle,” a word both Schubert and Rhythm ’n Wraps truck owner Aaron Cohen use to encapsulate the past five years.
“It will chew you up and spit you out,” Schubert says.
Rhythm ’n Wraps is serving globally inspired vegan wraps as part of the pilot. Cohen remembers the early days with a rueful laugh, recalling the dread of “opening the window and seeing a long line.” Cohen and his partner hadn’t realized just how much labor their multi-ingredient wraps demanded, he says.
It also took time for Rhythm ’n Wraps to find a loyal base, says Cohen.
“We tried Dudley Square [in Roxbury] … It wasn’t good. I remember people being in line being like ‘Vegetarian? What, are you trying to kill us?’” he says.
Taco Party faced similar blowback for its vegan food when people who wouldn’t choose to seek out a vegan restaurant stumbled upon the truck.
“When you have a vegan menu and people are looking for regular tacos, patience is key,” says Schubert. “You have to be willing to sit there and explain things and field some weird criticism.”
Both Schubert and Cohen say preparing food from a truck for customers who expect a fast meal taught them efficiency and speed, an advantage at any brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Schubert has also transferred the lesson of “keep it simple, stupid” from his truck, where limited space meant a limited menu. A focused menu that doesn’t try to do too much has been part of Taco Party’s success in Ball Square, he says.
Ensuring people know where to find your truck, and dealing with the weather—which Cohen calls “the biggest factor”—add more layers of difficulty, he says.
Trucks can only park at a location once a week during the pilot program, which makes them harder for customers to track.
“No pun intended, food trucks are a super amount of moving parts,” Cohen says.
Opening brick-and-mortar locations made operating trucks easier for both Schubert and Cohen, as they could switch their main cooking and staging spaces for their trucks out of shared kitchens—a luxury not available to food trucks without a permanent restaurant.
For the first few years, Taco Party rented space at a shared kitchen in Malden for $1,400 a month in order to prepare food ahead of time. Employees had
to contend with about 20 other food businesses using the space and vendors simultaneously trying to load their trucks, says Schubert.
“The last [shared kitchen] we were in, they just jammed it. We were the only vegan business in there and it was horrible,” he recalls.
Every day, Schubert woke up at 5:30 a.m. to pick up the truck and get to the communal kitchen by 6:30 or 7 to do prep work. He had to make it to the truck’s designated spot by 10:30 and handle the lunchtime rush with one or two other employees until around 2:30 p.m. The team would then head back to the kitchen to clean up and prep for the next day, park the truck for the night, and get home by around 7 p.m. or later.
Opening a restaurant also meant long days initially, but Schubert says he’s trying not to be “a control freak” and actually go home for dinner.
“We’re in a great spot right now. The big question is, do I want to add stress to my life by opening another spot? I think I do, but I’m not positive,” he says.
For Sergio Rubio, the owner of the new Bella Food Truck, getting access to Cambridge customers represents a big opportunity. The truck has spots in Cambridgeport and in North Point Park thanks to the pilot.
“I’m very excited to start in Cambridge. I’m hoping we get more people out there and get more events and catering, company meetings. We’re hoping to expand more after working in Cambridge,” he says.
Bella Food Truck serves American food—an array of sandwiches, burgers, and salads for lunch, and croissants, muffins, fruit, and acai bowls for breakfast, says Rubio.
Stationed in Everett since launching in January, the truck did better each week, he says. That’s part of his positive outlook, but he also loves interacting with people from the truck.
“It’s much better than running a restaurant where you don’t have much contact with the customers. It’s much more interesting and fun,” he says.
Customer engagement is a high point for Cohen as well. From credit card receipts, Cohen has seen that 70 percent of Rhythm ’n Wraps’s orders are from repeat customers, he says.
And despite the challenges of unpredictable weather, “We’ve got some people who will come and see us no matter what,” he says. “That’s the best feeling.”
It’s too early in the season to tell whether Rhythm ’n Wraps’s Cambridgeport location will turn a profit, but it has potential, Cohen says.
But as successful as the pilot program may prove, truck owners need to think bigger, says Schubert.
“Don’t rely on the city spots to be your income. You need to have special events, you need to cater,” he cautions. Otherwise, “You’re not going to survive, plain and simple.”