A Place to Park
A values-driven food truck in Boston puts down roots
What happens when you’ve got a brilliant idea, put it into action, and then realize that a pivot is necessary? That’s what happened to young food entrepreneurs Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw, whose Fresh Food Generation food truck drew accolades as soon as it began traversing Boston early in 2015. The truck set forth a bold vision: serve up affordable Latin American and Caribbean comfort food sourced from local farms to underserved and diverse neighborhoods a few days a week and then hit downtown Boston the rest of the week. The menu is the same, the audience is different, and the truck acts “almost as a tool for cross-cultural learning,” says Renshaw.
Campbell had grown up in Roxbury and Dorchester, two adjacent neighborhoods where healthy options are hard to find. When she returned there to live after graduating from Swarthmore College, she walked those streets with a new consciousness. Yes, there were some farmers markets selling good raw foods. But when it came to prepared foods, “in the society we live in, it is unrealistic to prepare all our meals every day,” Campbell says—there was nothing but unhealthy fast food.
It was a different story over in Cambridge, where Campbell worked at the Harvard Business School and got her masters in urban planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Locally sourced—and delicious—food was everywhere. She made a pitch to Renshaw for the truck as means to democratize local food. The young entrepreneurs had met a decade earlier when both were teenagers working at The Food Project, a social justice and sustainable agriculture organization for young people in the Boston area. With a friendship founded in food justice and an ambitious business plan, they were soon serving up jerk chicken, dirty rice, and bean stew in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, speaking to the cultural history of those communities through food.
But it was much easier to make a profit in Boston’s business-focused downtown, where cash flows more freely. In that first year, 80 percent of profits came from corporate catering, and while kale salads with quinoa went over big downtown, not so much in Roxbury. One big reason for the difference in sales? Because of Boston city regulations, the food truck could only spend three days in any given location, and in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, their customers weren’t finding them.
That’s why, less than a year into service, Campbell and Renshaw found themselves considering an opportunity to take over a 100-square foot café in the DotHouse Health Center in the heart of Dorchester. Their hip business on wheels was the antithesis of bricks and mortar, but could this be the right move?
They went to Jen Faigel, whom they’ve come to consider a mentor. After they won $10,000 in consulting support from Fair Food Network’s Fair Food Fund Business Boot Camp in 2014, Faigel provided them with additional support through the Fund’s Consulting Corps project.
Faigel is the director of Commonwealth Kitchen, a commercial kitchen and incubator where Fresh Food Generation does its food preparation. She had helped get the truck up and running. When they came to her about the DotHouse opportunity, Faigel was busy working on projections for Fresh Food Generation’s future, namely how to continue serving the lower income neighborhoods while off-setting lower sales there. Faigel “has seen what it is like for us to pull the truck back into the loading dock with unsold inventory,” Campbell says. “She knows what we are struggling with, she knows the challenges that are just out of our control.”
There was a possibility for what Campbell calls “natural synergy” at DotHouse. The previous vendor sold items like hot dogs and soda, no help to, say, a diabetes patient on his or her way out of a doctor’s appointment. DotHouse wanted to replace that vendor with someone who was conscious of health considerations and could provide good, locally sourced food to its clientele. (In addition to medical offices, DotHouse has a swimming pool and hosts a farmers’ market.)
The timing was awful though, businesswise, and Faigel, Renshaw, and Campbell knew it. “I don’t think we would have been as successful if we hadn’t had someone there to say, ‘I realize that this is a great opportunity, and that you are also crazy for pursuing it,’” Campbell said.
Faigel came to check out the space at DotHouse and then went to work. She sent “a bunch of emails” on Fresh Food Generation’s behalf, connected them to potential funders, found them two used refrigerators (worth about $6,000 but free via Northeastern University), and finally, “She gave us the confidence.”
Campbell and Renshaw are still working out the kinks, such as how to please the Caribbean comfort food crowd and groups like those of Irish heritage who’d like a tuna melt for lunch. The café says “Real Food Real People” over the doorway, and Campbell says, that messaging scares some off. “We have a range of customers who are like, ‘Oh no, I am not going to eat whatever you are serving.’” Not long ago, Campbell watched as a child picked up an organic milk “…and her mother said, ‘No, you aren’t going to like it.’ This is what the perception is of what healthy food tastes like. But other customers say, ‘Oh I was waiting for this!’”
Campbell and Renshaw’s plan has always been to educate consumers by introducing them to good food that tastes good. “The café allows us to do this on a daily basis,” she said. “I get to see my employees call their customers by their names, and that is really awesome. They are building trust over time.”
Like handing that little girl an apple and hoping that her mother will eventually bring her back for more.
Fresh Food Generation is still driving that truck, but they’ve also found a place to put down roots.
Mary Pols is an award-winning journalist who covers sustainability issues for the Portland Press Herald in Maine.
Federal funding for Fair Food Fund Consulting Corps work was provided by Local Food Promotion Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.