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).
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,” he says—“It will chew you up and spit you out.”
When Taco Party first got started, it faced 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.”
Schubert says preparing food from a truck for customers who expect a fast meal taught him 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.
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.
Taco Party’s new Cambridge food truck is in Cambridgeport (Sidney Street at Erie Street) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays.