Local News
8:51 am
Wed June 25, 2014

Department Of Disruption: Food Trucks And Their Discontents

Customers line up at Mei Mei Food Truck.
Customers line up at Mei Mei Food Truck.

When Andrew Li and his sisters, Irene and Margaret, decided to get into the food business, they didn’t have the money to open a restaurant. Fortunately for them, there was another option.

“The food truck was the only thing that was financially feasible for a startup business like ours,” Li said.

Their timing was ideal. When Mei Mei Street Kitchen rolled out in 2012, there were only about a dozen food trucks in Boston. And, it turns out, there was also an appetite for the Asian-inspired, locally sourced cuisine that the Lis had in mind.

“I think that people are very much interested in learning where their food comes from these days — and that everything is done in a sustainable and responsible manner,” Li said. “That the animals are being treated humanely — pasture-raised, humanely raised, that kind of thing.”

Andrew Li works in his food truck, Mei Mei.
Andrew Li works in his food truck, Mei Mei.

Now, Boston’s food-truck scene is booming­. There are nearly 70 trucks working in the city, offering everything from artisanal grilled cheese to Uyghur food on wheels. And Mei Mei is thriving. In fact, business is so good that the Lis recently opened a brick-and-mortar spot near Boston University. So it’s no surprise that, as Andrew Li sees it, food trucks are clearly a force for culinary good.

“Our guests, our clientele, and people in general have gotten really excited about food trucks,” he said. “Because it’s given them the ability to explore something new.”

But some restaurant owners say the trucks are giving them heartburn. Al Costello owns Al’s State Street Café, a Financial District mainstay with a sister restaurant near South Station.

“They didn’t tell us, when I signed this lease 10 years ago, that four wheels were going to pull up in front, and take away maybe 25 percent of our businesses that day,” Costello said.

And, he adds, the city’s decision to site food trucks in some areas but not others is baffling.

“You don’t see them in the North End, on Hanover Street,” Costello said. “You don’t see them anywhere else.” (In fact, there are roughly two dozen food truck sites around Boston, though the concentration near the Financial District is especially heavy.)

Al Costello
Al Costello

“I can see for the tourism — fine,” Costello added. “But to hit the business lunch crowd … This is how we make a living! It doesn’t make any sense.”

On a recent weekday, Costello’s two downtown restaurants were bustling. But he says the negative impact of food trucks isn’t always visible.

“I was going to open a store down on Clarendon last year,” Costello said. “I shied away because I wanted a guarantee from the city that they weren’t going to put a couple of four-wheel trucks in front of my door … I’m just one example of a restaurant that would have been opened already that isn’t.”

But Mei Mei shows that dynamic goes both ways — with food trucks leading to sit-down spots that otherwise might not exist.

For his part, Andrew Li says that as a newly minted brick-and-mortar restauranteur, he’s sympathetic to Costello’s frustrations — but only to a point.

“I think I would ask that gentleman, or any other individual who sees food trucks as a threat to their business: What have you done to innovate your business in the recent past?” Li said. “How many times have you changed your menu? How are you innovating yourself?”

For starters, Li suggests, Costello might want to consider opening a food truck of his own.

Watch the Greater Boston segment:

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