Food trucks are taking the nation by storm and the City of Somerville would be wise to embrace the movement. Mobile food vending — including trucks, vans, push carts and bicycles – is a large, growing trend expanding dining options, adding energy to the streets, and contributing to the economic vitality of the communities they frequent.
Today’s food trucks perfectly fit within three of key approaches of Union Square Main Streets’ asset-based strategy: growing the cluster of locally-owned, food-related businesses, encouraging greater pedestrian activity, and engaging low-impact, high results tools. The direction works just as well city-wide and here’s why:
Food trucks sell food — Somerville’s reputation is growing as a destination for dining and innovative businesses and mobile vendors can help us build upon this. Eateries are at the vanguard of emerging neighborhoods and a key component for every business district. From diners, ice cream parlors and pizzerias, to taquerias, bakeries, and barbeque joints, these small businesses crop up to serve the immediate neighborhood as well as the customers and employees of other nearby businesses. The health of a district’s eateries is a barometer of the area as a whole.
Food brings all of Somerville together — Cultural differences between disappear when sharing the perfect pasta, pad thai, or plantains, so for an eclectic community like Somerville this commonality around food is particularly desirable. While other immigrant-owned businesses might struggle for cross-over clientele, food businesses are able to support a wide, varied customer base. Immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs than those who are American born with food-related businesses preferred because the business skills are easily transferred, language ability isn’t as much of a priority, and they typically provide a number of flexible jobs for extended family.
Food trucks are business incubators – You might call food-based businesses a gateway to entrepreneurship. It’s not such a big leap from a sidewalk lemonade stand to popsicles sold from a bicycle-powered cart to a wholesale company distributing the pops nationwide. Like day care, salons, auto repair, the threshold to food businesses is relatively low and production and sales easily understood. For aspiring businesspeople, mobile vending provides the stepping stones for small, local, independently owned businesses to emerge without crippling financial risk. With commercial lending increasingly limited, this sort of micro enterprise is frequently all that’s realistic for new budding entrepreneurs.
Food trucks and brick-and-mortar businesses work well together – Just as temporary markets and festivals contribute to the economic vitality of the businesses nearby, food trucks can do that too, by drawing attention to an area and fostering pedestrian activity. Just about every business does better when it clusters with like-minded businesses. Car dealerships on Route One, night clubs on Landsdowne Street, boutiques and galleries on Newbury are all examples of thriving districts where like businesses have clustered and thrived by their proximity to one anther. Because they’ll be looking for opportunities, not competition, mobile food vendors seek out the cracks in the market where potential demand isn’t yet met by brick and mortar businesses. Options that I think could work well are late night grilled cheese sandwiches in Davis Square after the restaurant kitchens have closed, ice cream desserts in Union Square for diners looking to linger after their meals, sandwiches and drinks for teams and their fans during games at playing fields around town. Food trucks, with their grab-and-go fare, meet a different customer need than sit down restaurants, bars and cafes.
Mobile food businesses are Somerville businesses – Beloved Davis Square brick and mortar shops like Redbones and Kickass Cupcakes have joined the trend and are sporting their bright trucks in Boston and Cambridge. In Union Square, several mobile food vendors operate out of Kitchen Inc., including Culinary Cruisers and Concept Carts. Well-known Taza Chocolate and new kid Sweet Idea rely on mobile vending for marketing and retail sales. And the relationship goes the other way too as, with a welcome, mobile vendors have already demonstrated a willingness to grow and invest here. For example, 3 Little Figs and Q’s Nuts built their customer base in Somerville through their participation in the Winter Farmers Market at the Armory. Both have since opened permanent locations here with storefronts on Highland Avenue.
Lighter, quicker, cheaper – Small scale, temporary interventions can have a big impact on the vitality of a neighborhood, far beyond the modesty of their scope. Long term planning and major redevelopment have their place, but for quick results, to prove the case for investment, and to spark grassroots engagement, go the lighter, faster, cheaper route. The phrase, promoted by the Project for Public Spaces, speaks to the value of relatively low-cost efforts like farmers markets, pop-up stores, parklets, festivals, art installations, façade improvement projects, sidewalk planters, outdoor dining, and yes, food trucks to change perceptions and create neighborhood vitality. This isn’t just a feel-good project. The Union Square Farmers Market, open just four hours a week June through November, generates $1.5 million in economic impact. A study of the Somerville Arts Council’s ArtsUnion showed that their programming of festivals and markets generated $4.40 in economic impact for each dollar invested. Food trucks are a cheap, high impact way to foster economic activity in the city.
Think quality food — While they do still exist, today’s food trucks are not the maligned “roach coach” or the stereotypical ice cream truck reselling pre-packaged conventions. Because they’re small scale, mobile food vendors are becoming one place where you’ll find affordable, innovative food using seasonal, local ingredients. Check out some of the food truck festivals like the recent one at Dewey Square where I sampled healthy versions of American barbecue from BBQ Smith, the Vietnamese inspired of Bon Me serving up tempura fried fiddleheads (one of my seasonal favorites), and lip smacking grilled cheese from Roxy’s Grilled Cheese (favorites from the Food Network show Great Food Truck Race.) As part of the permitting process the City will be able to select the vendors that will be best serve our community.
Food vendors support other community building efforts – In Somerville, we’ve built an enthusiastic audiences for public space activities including a whole array of festivals and markets from ArtBeat to SomerStreets, Swirl & Slice to the Bizarre Bazaar, Honk to Fluff, even the newly opened Davis Flea. Food-based businesses are a part of each and every one these. Currently, there’s an awkward mechanism for mobile food businesses to participate in these events. A clear mobile food vendor ordinance would enable event producers to have a list of pre-approved vendors and would allow the City to protect public safety while limiting redundant bureaucratic systems.