You Asked, We Answered: Why Is It So Hard For Food Trucks In N.H.?

Apr 1, 2020

In July of 2019, Marissa Balonon-Rosen was at a crossroads in her life. She’d just graduated from law school on her way toward fulfilling her dream of becoming a public defender.   

She had her whole life set up post law school. She’d landed her dream job in New Hampshire. She had an apartment all lined up in Manchester. The only thing standing in her way was a 16 hour exam, spread across two days: the bar exam. 

Marissa studied and hoped to pass, but she also didn’t know what the future would hold. And so she turned to her good friend Miguel, who was also in law school with her, and created a plan B.

“Let’s start a food truck in New Hampshire,” said Marissa.

The idea was to start a food truck serving paella. Miguel is originally from Spain and the two had bonded over the rice dish. 

“I was like, ‘yo, you need to come up with some great recipe and we'll bring it to New Hampshire,’” said Marissa. 

The day of the exam came and Marissa flew to New England to take it. And tragically, oh, so tragically, she passed the bar exam. 

Marissa followed through with her original plan to become a lawyer. She moved to Manchester and while she’s adjusting very well, she does miss food truck culture in Austin. 

And seeing so few food trucks around New Hampshire, Marissa reached out to Second Greatest to ask, “Why is it so hard to open and operate food trucks in New Hampshire?” 

Conway

“Hey there! Welcome to Cheese Louise,” said James Gaudreault.

James Gaudreault is one of the owners of Cheese Louise, a food truck that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches. 

Cheese Louise food truck in Maine
Credit Cheese Louise Facebook

“We're trying to come up with a name. I floated around… like we were gonna look at Cheese On Wheels, Cheese For a Truck, The Mouse House,” explained James. 

James is a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington, but he and his business are originally from Conway. That’s where they’ve operated for the past 2 summers. 

James co-owns the food truck with two of his high school friends, Bryce Harrison and Ian Lubkin, but they’re away at college during what’s typically the off-season for Cheese Louise. And in their absence, James has found a patchwork of helping hands from college friends and roommates.

But while things seem to be going okay for Cheese Louise in Burlington when we visited in January, it has not always been as carefree as the food truck lifestyle might seem. 

James says they faced challenges from the very beginning. The biggest? Conway, where Cheese Louse began, has no official food truck permit. Food trucks are so new to the area that the permitting and zoning laws have yet to catch up. 

“The regulations that we are using to govern food trucks, which is a fairly recent phenomenon in the area, is the same regulations that have been put in place long before food trucks ever came on the scene,” explained Thomas Holmes, Conway Town Manager. 

The only option available to Cheese Louise was a temporary 14-day permit for special events. Every two weeks, James and his co-owners would apply for a new permit until the end of the season. Businesses are only allocated one special event permit per year so in addition to asking if they could park on their property, Cheese Louise also had to ask if they could use that business’s permit.

“And pretty much without fail, every local business said, ‘Absolutely. We're not using the days. Give it a try. We'd love to help some young students and young entrepreneurs out,’” said James.

With the help of the community, Cheese Louise made it work. That is until the end of the summer of 2019. 

“We found ourselves for about two weeks just scrambling without a spot. So this is late August. There's heavy tourism. It's a beautiful kind of golden last days of summer where we should be doing big numbers and we're just kind of losing money and just bleeding pretty much,” explained James. 

Cheese Louise had three main problems at this point. One, they had exhausted all the temporary locations that were profitable in town. Two, their application for a zoning permit, which would allow them to settle in a permanent spot, was rejected. And three, they’d opened a second business, Freeze Louise, a small storefront serving ice cream sandwiches, that violated greenspace laws when they replaced the grass out front with gravel. 

Frustrated, the three owners of Cheese Louise expressed their feelings in the only intelligible way one could: with a diss track posted on Facebook.

“I remember the specific day. We were coming back from an event in southern New Hampshire, and we were just chatting about the frustration. What are we gonna do? How are we gonna find our next location?” explained James. “It wasn't that strategic or that pointed. But what's the worst that could happen? We'll find some exposure for our cause. We'll have some fun with it.” 

The video got over 20,000 views, and in response, people called the town to express their support of Cheese Louise. 

“That’s a new way to complain. I’ve never got a video complaint before,” said Conway Town Manager Thomas Holmes. “I admired the video from a technical standpoint and, you know, from the innovation of it. Oh, look what the kids are doing.”

In the end, Cheese Louise won some battles and lost others. They received a three day extension on their temporary permit to operate until the end of the summer. A local turf business saw the video and helped them out with the greenspace problem. As for securing a permanent location, though, that application remained in limbo. 

Thomas Holmes says that he’s open to working with food trucks to create a longer, seasonal license but that they need to work through the established systems, a system that requires a public vote. There’s no fast lane to do this.

“The wheels of government move slowly, you know, especially when you're trying to change them,” said Thomas. 

Portsmouth

While Conway hasn't yet had the official conversation about food trucks, other places, like the city of Portsmouth, have had food trucks on the radar for the past decade. 

Portsmouth’s food truck laws have been in place since 2010. Food trucks are only allowed in two designated spots in the downtown area, each spot priced at a minimum bid of $5,000 for the season. Food truck operators must also have access to a commercial kitchen.

But those two spots currently sit unclaimed. Some food truck owners we spoke with said the regulations steered them away.

According to New Hampshire Food Protection, there has been a 70% increase in food truck licenses in the last 3.5 years, although the overall number of food trucks still remains relatively low statewide. 

Rachel Forrest, a food writer at the Portsmouth Herald, has witnessed the slow growth of food trucks on the seacoast and in New Hampshire more broadly.

“I remember being going to  college in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and all the food trucks were lined up and that's where you'd go after all the bars let out, you'd go get a cheese steak or you'd go get some, you know, greasy sandwich, a stromboli or a slice of pizza. And that's what a food truck was back then. Now we're in a whole new age,” described Rachel.

Rachel says that food trucks have become a bigger part of mainstream culture. 

“People are getting really good food from food trucks. And some chefs are going from a food truck concept to a brick and mortar restaurant, making a go of it that way,” said Rachael.

In 2017, Portsmouth considered revising its regulations to make them friendlier to food trucks. Former Portsmouth City Councilor Rebecca Perkins drafted the Portsmouth Food Truck Pilot Program, a proposal that would expand the areas where food trucks could operate, but only during late night hours of 10pm to 2am. The plan also called for a lower cost to participate. 

Rebecca believes that food trucks are one of many ways New Hampshire can retain and attract young people in the state. 

Downtown Portsmouth
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

“Food trucks are part of an ecosystem for young people that I think represent diversity and interesting amenities. And one of the primary concerns in New Hampshire is attracting and retaining young professionals,” explained Rebecca.

“And so I think to the extent we can provide pieces of the ecosystem that they're looking for, I think that's an important part of the future economy of our state, future of our civic boards, our elections. You know, basically everything in the state.”

But not everyone in Portsmouth shares Rebecca’s view. 

“My concern is parking regulations, impact on traffic, sanitary regulations, trash regulations,” said Mary Lou McElwain, a member of the Portsmouth Parking and Traffic Safety committee. 

She believes that Portsmouth is a vibrant community of businesses as is. 

“My own feeling is that we have so many restaurants both downtown and leading down Islington Street and all the way down Lafayette that what is the need for food trucks?” explained Mary Lou. “But also because of the number of restaurants, small restaurants that pay big bucks for renting in Portsmouth and food trucks pay a fee to the city of Portsmouth, but they don't pay on a daily basis to use that space. So that's basically where I'm coming from.”

Mary Lou recognizes that Portsmouth is a high rent city but she thinks the downtown businesses need protection.  She isn’t the only one making this argument. 

“I got some kickback from some local restaurateurs. Some local restaurants were concerned about losing business,” said Conway Town Manager Thomas Holmes. “The way it was described to me is that, you know, we are here year round in the winter months. We lose money. We keep people employed year round. We can contribute back to the community, and we pay property taxes. And then along come these food truck vendors, they open up across the street, next door. They steal our lunch business and they're not paying property taxes and they're not hiring people year round. And they're here at the prime time of the season with all this, you know, all the businesses to be made, all the money is to be made for the year. And they're not here during the lean months when, you know, we're all  struggling to pay for the heat, the electricity.”

Rebecca Perkins, who proposed the pilot program in Portsmouth, doesn’t agree, arguing that food trucks and restaurants serve different needs. 

“I feel like they're in very different markets just from a starting point. You know, one is someone who wants to go out and spend $3 on some, you know, empanadas for lunch. And another one is to sit down and spend $13.95 on a salad and have table service, you know. So those are different markets,” said Rebecca.

Rachel agrees. “It's that food trucks are also a less expensive way to get quality food and diverse food and interesting food. Not everybody can afford to sit down at a restaurant and have a couple of drinks in a three course meal.”

One common argument made in favor of food trucks nationwide is that they give new chefs, especially immigrant chefs, a way to start their own businesses without breaking the bank. 

“Well, it costs a lot of money to open a restaurant. I know it's a dream for so many people… It's difficult on your family life. It's difficult on your bank book. It can use up every single dollar you have. It can use up your kid's college fund. It can use up your pension, your parents pension. So food trucks are a way to start off as an entrepreneur,” said Rachel.

But congestion and noise in a dense downtown is a constant worry in Portsmouth. Lots of constituents testified at this meeting, expressing many of the same concerns as Parking Committee Member Mary Lou McElwain. 

Ultimately, the committee voted against the proposal and the program was dropped. So the regulations have stayed the same: two spots at a $5000 minimum bid. 

Portsmouth isn’t completely without food trucks; they just don’t operate on city designated spots. Some are located on private property or are open solely for special events. 

For Mary Lou, the city’s regulations help to preserve Portsmouth and its businesses even if it deters interested food trucks. 

“I think that's the purpose of it. I do. And I don't have a problem with that because I don't think that food trucks should be on the street,” explained Mary Lou. “Well, I'm talking about historical Portsmouth. I'm talking about streets that have historical buildings, their narrow streets, you know, versus some areas of Boston, for instance, or Springfield, Massachusetts, or New Bedford, you know, larger cities, but also larger downtowns.”

Across the Piscataqua River in Maine, the food truck scene is quite different. Kittery opened a Food Truck Pod in 2019, a venue where multiple food trucks can park and serve food. In Wells, there’s another food truck park called Congdon's After Dark, and Portland has its own special scene, too. 

As for Portsmouth becoming a bustling food truck hub like Rebecca envisioned with her proposal… that’s still very much a pipe dream. 

State and Local Regulations

Tony Elias owns The Spot To Go food truck, previously known as Made with Love 603, in Manchester. Tony wanted a food truck for the reason a lot of people do: he wanted to be his own boss. He also wanted to cook the foods he grew up eating - empanadas and jibaritos, Puerto Rican food. 

One of the biggest challenges he faces are the 15 self-licensing towns, towns with their own unique requirements to operate. In a small state like New Hampshire, without major population centers, moving around to different towns and cities is essential to being profitable. 

We started with our listener question: why is it so hard to open a food truck in NH? But we also wondered if the premise of that question was even true. Is it harder to open a food truck in New Hampshire?

Tony says yes.

“I find New Hampshire to be the hardest place to do things,” he said.

But he does, to a certain extent, understand the reasoning behind the regulations.

“I wish they would all just get together, every single town. And say, all right, this is what's going to be universal through all of them. Just make it standard, because it's almost like they contradict each other every town you go to. You can't follow every single rule and guideline through all these towns,” said Tony. 

Tony isn’t alone in wishing the state had one centralized licensing process. This somewhat radical idea is reality in Rhode Island, where the legislature created a single license for food trucks across the state in 2018. 

Sometimes, the difficulty of managing the different rules convinces someone to close up shop. 

That’s what happened with the Lunch Lady Food Truck, which used to be a staple at the Everett Arena in Concord. Then, it went down to four days a week; then just special events. In February, JJ Hall, yes, the Lunch Lady herself, decided to sell the truck. 

“And, you know, I just kind of lost the passion. I got to a point where it became too much. Both. Not necessarily mentally, but physically,” said JJ. “And the red tape. I mean. You know, I got into this so I didn't have to work for anybody else. But then, you know, following all the rules and going from town to town and making sure, you know, that you have everything that that town requires where another town wouldn't, you know, it just. I just got to be too much like, you know what? Time to find something else to do. 

As much as Tony might be annoyed at times, he has made his peace with the processes in New Hampshire.

For Tony, the challenges of abiding by regulations pale in comparison to the other challenges of running a kitchen on wheels. A bump in the road can ruin the whole day. 

“Do you know what it is to prep food for hundreds of people, and go into your food truck and your fridges and your deli compartments all open up and all that food that you spent all night prepping all over the floor?” said Tony of that bump. “The bungee cord popped off. All of that food everywhere. Everywhere, everywhere. Oh my god.” 

This is kind of what you’re signing up for when you run a food truck: high highs, low lows, and lots and lots of heartache. 

“You gotta be patient. Only the strong survive,” said Tony. “Because at the end of the day, I'm blessed. I could be so aggravated that the gas didn't work today. At the end of the day, I'm blessed. You got a food truck, dude. That guy over there doesn't have a food truck. That guy doesn't have it. You do.”

Many New Hampshire food trucks do the occasional event in Massachusetts or Boston, and they claim that the regulations are a lot more relaxed there.

In 2018, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation compiled a report, ranking cities across America on just how food truck friendly they are. New Hampshire wasn’t included in the report, but its close neighbor Boston was. 

Boston was ranked dead last out of 20 cities when it came to ease of acquiring permits and licenses. 

If Boston is on the bottom of the list, where does that put New Hampshire?