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Restaurants reinvent the food truck

Restaurants are branching out with gourmet food trucks to capture fast-growing trend. Food trucks allow restaurants to experiment with new offerings.

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Many restaurant owners see an opportunity to expand their customer base by launching their own trucks. A 2012 poll found that 22 percent of "fast casual" and 13 percent of "quick service" and "family-dining operators" are considering adding a food truck, according to the National Restaurant Association, a Washington-based trade group.

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The phenomenon has stirred controversy. Some bricks-and-mortar restaurants have appealed to zoning boards to slow the spread of the trucks, which don't pay real estate taxes or rent, but do hog parking spots, steal customers, and have noisy generators. In Des Moines, Iowa, the city council implemented regulations that would require vendors to set up in the same place every day and provide a restroom within 500 feet. Nick Mallia, the catering event manager for the Paris Creperie, a cafe in Brookline, Mass., says getting his restaurant's peach-colored food truck up and running involved a "struggle to get the approval from selectmen," who were concerned about its effect on traffic and local businesses.

But in some smaller US cities, such as Champaign, Ill., and Lexington, Ky., officials are gradually opening up zoning laws to allow more food trucks. Cities with established rosters of dozens of food trucks are using them to draw tourists into downtowns. For example, some 31,000 people in Oceanport, N.J., endured a drizzly weekend in May to sample offerings during the Jersey Shore Food Truck Wars.

Some food truck entrepreneurs have found such a successful following that they have opened bricks-and-mortar restaurants under the same name. The owners of Mei Mei Street Kitchen, a Chinese-American food truck run year-round by siblings in Boston, plan to open a restaurant near the Boston University campus by late summer.

The new place "will reflect the food truck spirit," says Mei Li, a founding sister, including an open kitchen and walk-up counter – only inside, with no idling generators or winter snowstorms.

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