The rise of hip, gourmet food trucks is celebrated in urban centers like Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. That’s spawned a trend that’s stretched to Boston. But as food trucks tentatively make their way into western Massachusetts, they’re hitting some red lights.
In a city-owned parking lot a few blocks from downtown Pittsfield, a sole food truck proprietor sits and waits for business. Gabe Lloyd, who owns the truck with his wife Kathy, describes the day’s menu offerings, over the hum of a portable generator.
“Today we have the Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, which is organic chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy, and local honey-glazed carrots,” Lloyd says.
And the reason the business is called How We Roll?
“Everything’s in an egg roll,” he says. ” Yup. That’s our shtick.”
Quirky offerings like these, combining a foodie perspective with portability, are typical of the trend.
With no specific city rules for food trucks, the Lloyds were able to set up in a public lot after getting a health inspection, basic peddler’s license, and simply paying for parking permits. They need three of them to fit the trailer.
The presence of just one or two food trucks in Pittsfield was enough to spark opposition from existing restaurateurs. The city council is now mulling a set of rules to govern this mobile cuisine.
Jim Tulligan owns New Berry Place, a store offering convenience items plus a full bakery case and ice cream cones. Tulligan hasn’t faced this kind of competition yet, but he’s worried about being undercut by the appearance of transient food vendors with less overhead.
“They’re here and they’re gone,” Tulligan says. “I’m here from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 at night, and to pull up at prime time lunch hours hours 11 to 1 and and take my business away, that’s just not, plain and simple that’s just not fair. I’m paying rent, they’re not paying rent. If they want to help pay my rent as they’re taking my business away, I’m all for it.”
Besides intense competition for customers, Western Massachusetts communities dabbling in the food truck movement face other issues, like limited parking and compact business districts.
Bill Dwight, city council president in Northampton, says a business model that works in a thriving urban center may not translate to smaller downtowns, with independently owned stores and a different culture.
“A lot of people like the idea of food trucks because they’ve seen them work so well in Boston and New York City and Los Angeles,” Dwight says. “A lot of restaurant owners and entrepreneurs who come to Northampton have been burned on that assessment because what happens is, we’re not like Los Angeles and New York, we’re like Northampton.”
Northampton is among the communities who’ve scrambled to figure out just how to regulate food trucks, and who would do it. The city passed regulations in September to bar the trucks from the center of downtown and have the police department issue permits in designated spots.
Amherst loosened up parking restrictions for food trucks this year and now offers four licenses.
In Great Barrington, the selectboard asked the board of health to draw up a map showing where the mobile kitchens should be allowed or prohibited.
Lloyd, the maestro of creative egg rolls in Pittsfield, says the idea that he has an advantage over brick-and-mortar restaurants is overstated. At $2.50 each, he says, he has to sell a lot of egg rolls to make a profit.
“We don’t have the expense of a big crew, brick and mortar building, but when it rains and when it snows, I can’t sell anything,” he says.
He’s going to give it a go this winter, though. His truck was invited to park at the outlet mall in Lee for the holiday shopping season, around the same time officials in Pittsfield and Great Barrington will debate proposed food truckrules for their communities.