By Dustin Luca
---- — Be it cupcakes or ice cream, gourmet sandwiches or hot dogs, odds are you’ve seen — and maybe even stopped at — a food truck in Andover.
The once-urban trend in quick-hit, grab-and-go dining has discovered Andover in a big way. And odds are it won’t be running out of gas any time soon.
Local officials see the arrival of food trucks as the latest incarnation in mobile food businesses, like ice cream trucks and hot dog carts that have been canvassing communities and setting up temporary shop in high-traffic areas for decades.
But those behind the wheel today say the new generation of mobile dining ventures offer so much more than they ever did — with even more possibilities to come.
A dream opportunity
Nadine Levin got the idea for her four-wheeled sweets emporium, Pipe Dream Cupcakes, from working in Boston for more than a decade.
“Boston is where the action is. ... There are food trucks everywhere,” she said. “If you want huge volume, Boston is the place. All those food trucks have lines that go on forever.”
But while food trucks were a gold mine in the city, Levin noticed there was no comparable movement in her neck of the woods.
The busy mother launched her business last year, taking her Pipe Dream Cupcakes operation on the road five days a week. She sees it as a chance to elevate her baking, which has always been a hobby, to a higher level.
That same urge drove Mark Stout, the former chef at Palmer’s Restaurant on Elm Street, to venture out on his own.
But with the high cost involved in opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Stout and his significant other, Stefanie Auchterlonie, who were both raised in Andover, opted to go the food truck route as well.
“The food truck was a eureka moment. It just hit me — Andover is a good community where they like things that are new,” Stout said.
The end result is Mess Haul, a large, green van adorned to resemble a B-17 bomber that has been building a devoted curbside following in town.
Count area businessman Jeff Gulko among its fans. Gulko was recently spotted in his car parked downtown in front of Sovereign Bank on Main Street enjoying a sandwich from Mess Haul.
Gulko was headed to Bertucci’s in downtown Andover when he stumbled on Mess Haul.
“I was like, a food truck in Andover?” he said.
He couldn’t resist and said he didn’t regret his decision.
Local construction worker Billy Tompkins agreed, saying mobile dining is “easier for people who are just driving around.” And he said the trucks also help the economy and bring added energy to the downtown.
Town Health Director Tom Carbone credits TV shows like “The Great Food Truck Race” on The Food Network with helping to grow interest in the new dining trend.
Bob Lavoie, chairman of the Andover Chamber of Commerce, is happy to see that trend take hold in town, crediting the food trucks with supporting the community by bringing a layer of flexibility to downtown life.
“There are times when all of us are in a rush and need to grab something on the fly and eat in the car,” Lavoie said.
Look for more food trucks to join the fray in the coming weeks. David Pierre of Orange Leaf in Andover has applied for a license for a mobile frozen yogurt truck.
And Andover fire Lt. Scott Gibson and his wife, Andover High School nurse Jo-Anne Gibson, are also soon hoping to roll out a mobile offering of their Lady Jayne’s Gourmet Popcorn.
The couple have been operating their popcorn venture primarily online through mail orders and wholesale business and from a mobile cart they set up at local events.
While they aim to open a storefront someday featuring their uniquely flavored popcorns — think olive oil and sea salt, maple caramel bacon and cocoa caramel with potato chips — a mobile popcorn van became a step up the ladder for growing the business, Jo-Anne Gibson said.
“We’ll be able to reach quite a few more people with the truck,” she said.
The existing food trucks are welcoming the newcomers to the streets, saying more mobile options only increase business for everyone.
“It just drives more people to town,” Levin said. “If I’m promoting my food truck and Mess Haul is promoting their food truck and people know about me and him, people will come to town and that will only make the shops more visible.”
It’s no secret that basing a business on a mobile clientele base doesn’t rake in cash. But Auchterlonie and Stout view Mess Haul as a way to pay the bills by making memories.
“We’re young enough to do it and have enough to do it,” Stout said. “It isn’t so much about how much money we’re making. It’s about how much we’re enjoying ourselves because we’re on our own. We can do what we want.”
Notes from the road: Advice from food truck families
Though it may seem like fun, starting a food truck is no picnic. Just ask the experts.
Stefanie Auchterlonie, co-owner of Mess Haul, said the town welcomed her and her boyfriend, Mark Stout, “with open arms.” But the process to start the business’ engines was nothing short of a legacy of work.
“If you think you can get a truck off the ground in six months, you’re dead wrong,” Stout said.
Part of the difficulty rested in Mess Haul being the first mobile venture in town equipped with an operating kitchen.
“They had to have us in on a lot of meetings to figure out how to move forward,” Stout said.
Mobile food truck operators suggest anyone interested in launching a venture start with Town Hall. They called the town’s planning and development departments a strong ally in their efforts.
Health Director Tom Carbone said food trucks face the same policies and practices as a full-fledged, brick-and-mortar restaurant. But even then, “in many ways, (things are) more complicated on a truck,” Carbone said.
To help with the process, the Health Department maintains a plan review package covering the steps needed to go from dream to convene, Carbone said. This includes everything from sink requirements to where and how to establish the storing of water and purging of wastewater. Since each food truck is unique, the requirements for each will vary, he said.
Patience is probably the biggest key to success in obtaining an operating permit.
“Expect it to take some time. It’s not something that happens overnight. Be persistent,” Scott Gibson, co-owner of Lady Jayne’s Gourmet Popcorn, said.
Wife Jo-Anne Gibson agreed. “Don’t just have a plan. Have a plan B,” she said.
Pipe Dream Cupcakes owner Nadine Levin also suggests prospective food truck operators get to know their areas of operation in advance.
“The key to a food truck is finding a place with a lot of traffic and people,” she said. “You want people walking around so you’re visible.”
Lastly, don’t forget to be friendly to fellow members of the mobile dining community.
“Everyone tries to help each other, and that’s what Andover’s all about,” Levin said. “There’s enough business for everybody so that we all can grow.”
— Dustin Luca, staff writer