Frank Yang, an immigrant from Shanghai, likes to use a Chinese saying to describe his food business. Running a restaurant is like “gardening a tree and waiting for rabbits to come,” he says. But operating a food truck, “you need to go outside and chase your rabbits.”
After 20 years of operating trucks near Boston colleges, Yang, 61, is still chasing rabbits. For his next Savory Food Truck, he has his sights set on Northeastern University.
Yang already owns trucks located near Harvard University, MIT, and Emerson College and in City Hall Plaza and the Longwood Medical area. He sells 300 to 600 meals a day.
The Northeastern neighborhood is a logical target, Yang said.
“Northeastern has the largest population of Chinese students among Boston universities,” said Minggan Wei, vice president of public relations for Northeastern’s Chinese Student and Scholar Association. Yet the Asian restaurants on campus serve Thai and Japanese food. “Chinese food will definitely be welcomed here,” Wei said.
Two other food trucks, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and CNR Guys, got the opportunity to alternate running their businesses on the one public spot that the city made available on streets near Northeastern, according to the Boston Food Truck schedule. The city allowed for 18 public food truck locations in total this year. Yang is trying to persuade university administrators to let him operate on the campus.
“We want to provide one more choice for students here,” Yang said. A university spokesperson wouldn’t comment on Yang’s bid for an on-campus location, saying only that “Northeastern Dining will continue to refine menu options and explore new ones based on feedback and requests from the student population.”
Launching a Northeastern truck would bring the business full circle for Yang and his family. Yang started his business when “few food trucks were seen on Boston’s streets,” Yang said.
In May 1992, he and his three siblings bought a restaurant on Harvard Avenue in Allston, with a kitchen they used to cook food for the first truck. Yang thought that the large number of Chinese students in Boston would prefer to eat hot and traditional Chinese lunches, rather than sandwiches. So his family decided to locate its trucks near universities.
They chose Northeastern as their first location. But on their first day, they sold just seven boxes of lunch. On the second day, they sold five. They closed the truck within a week.
Yang decided to give two other neighborhoods a try. He ran one truck on Avenue Louis Pasteur in the Longwood Medical area with his younger sister, while his brother ran another near Harvard, with Yang’s wife. His older sister was the accountant, while their mother looked after the restaurant.
With the siblings focused on the trucks, the restaurant didn’t have many customers. “Only a few friends often came and chatted with my mother,” Yang said.
At the beginning, the Yang family wasn’t chasing business so much as being chased. Yang and his brother parked their trucks in public places, but the police, in the absence of ordinances governing food trucks, were always asking them to move.
The Yangs eventually found private property owners willing to host a food truck. Brigham and Women’s Hospital administrators liked the idea of a Chinese food truck parked in the neighborhood, to give their employees more lunch choices. So they allowed Yang to park his truck near the southwest corner of the dermatology building.
Yang’s business suffered after the 9/11 attacks and hadn’t recovered enough to sustain the blow of the 2008 recession. He sold the restaurant and another he had bought at the end of 2008. A year later, he and three friends, Rita Lin, John Lin and Guochang Huang, set up the Enterprise Management Company to run the food truck business exclusively. In the following two years, Yang and his management team gradually expanded from two trucks to five.
Yang now spends most of his time in the central kitchen, in Watertown. Every morning, three chefs prepare Chinese dishes, which are placed in stainless steel warmers, loaded into the five trucks, and driven to locations in time for the 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. lunch crowd. Three workers staff each truck. Yang considers his strict rules about food preparation to be a key to his food trucks’ success. He hired several people to do nothing but clean the kitchen and wash the trucks every day. “People used to call food trucks cockroaches cars, but I would not let my trucks be called this,” he said.
Yang tries to keep his prices affordable: about $5.50 to $6 for each dish. He also tries to innovate with his menu. He added healthier choices a few years ago, using a water-based cooking process rather than oil, and using thinner slices of meat.
Speedy service is also essential. That’s primarily Shuyang Zhao’s job. The 33-year-old Beijing native is in charge of No.1 Savory Food Truck in the Longwood Medical area.
“People usually only have 20 or 30 minutes for lunch, so we need to control their waiting time in the line to five minutes,” Zhao said.
Sam Lee, a graduate student, tried the Savory Food Truck for the first time last week, while waiting for a bus. Within minutes, his lunch was ready. “It is really an advantage, especially for people who wait here for buses,” Lee said.
Although Yang spends most of his time in the kitchen, he visits the No.1 Savory Food Truck often to see his old friends in the Longwood area. Elioffe Mehu, a Brigham security guard, hugged Yang when he saw him on a recent visit. Mehu informed Yang that two months ago, a new salad and sandwich shop had opened inside the dermatology building.
Yang acknowledged the increasing competition, but said he is confident about his trucks’ cuisine and price. Never one to be content to just tend his garden, Yang added: “I worry about the weather. The winter is coming, and people like to stay inside buildings when it comes to cold or snowy days.”
The chase goes on.