When Bobby Maclean first had lunch from the Roxy’s Grilled Cheese food truck a few years ago, he had no idea it would be the catalyst for a new career. Maclean had worked in coffee shops and dreamed of opening his own brick-and-mortar cafe, but the prohibitive costs put him off.
“I had never heard of food trucks, it was the weirdest thing,” Maclean said of his first experience with them. “But it works, this food truck thing. I looked into it and it was not a whole lot of money to start up, which I thought was very cool.”
Dissatisfied with his job in real estate, Maclean and his then girlfriend decided to combine their skills in business and the food industry to start a food truck of their own. What resulted is Compliments Food Truck, which now operates out of Somerville’s Kitchen Inc., a shared commercial kitchen incubator.
Despite being passionate about the new venture, starting Compliments wasn’t easy. Unable to secure a big enough loan or find a truck that fit his specifications, Maclean took his search online, eventually placing a bid on a truck for sale on eBay. When no one out-bid him, Maclean bought a one-way ticket to California and drove the truck home.
“My father and I basically built the whole thing,” Maclean said of employing his New Hampshire-based dad’s handyman skills in turning the truck into a mobile restaurant. “We did it very, very cheap, very low budget. We just kind of just did it ourselves.”
While starting a food truck may require less capital than opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, building out a truck and getting all the necessary supplies can still run upward of $100,000. Maclean got the Compliments truck on the road in about five months for about $30,000.
Compliments began in the Brookline food truck program and eventually moved into the Boston scene after working its first food truck festival and raising the funds to expand.
“The first fall we did the Life is Good Festival,” Maclean said. “It was amazing, but we kind of got our asses kicked. It was so big and we were so brand new at doing this. We fine-tuned our process for speed and food delivery. We did it again and killed it.”
Maclean grew up in southern New Hampshire surrounded by farms and he wanted incorporate fresh, local food into Compliments’ offering of sandwiches and fried sides. And to accommodate customers’ dietary restrictions, Compliments uses Bob’s Red Mill Garbanzo Bean Flour, which is gluten-free, for the fry batter.
“We always wanted to lean toward buying stuff local from farms cause that’s what I grew up doing,” Maclean said. “We wanted to bring this kind of stuff to the streets.”
Over time some menu items have become almost sacred, like the tuna melt and fried cauliflower, while others have come into being based on customer requests.
“The first month or two this family always came with a little boy,” Maclean said. “The dad always got a tuna melt, but the kid wanted a tuna melt with no tuna.” So Compliments made him a grilled cheese with tomatoes and “he loved it, it was like the best thing on the planet. Then we started selling tons and tons of grilled cheeses to the neighborhood.”
Like the menu, the name of the truck has evolved over time. At first, Maclean wanted to name the menu items compliments, but instead he and his employees starting tossing compliments at passersby to attract attention. It worked, many of the people walking by smiled and stopped to learn what the truck was all about.
In addition to initially lacking funds for a built-out truck, Maclean also didn’t have the cash to rent space in a commissary kitchen. A restaurant-owner friend in Brookline allowed Compliments to use his kitchen, but eventually the business grew and needed space of its own.
“We had done a few events in Somerville and were going to that side of the river more often,” Maclean said when he found Kitchen Inc. “It was just starting up again and I thought it was super cool and kind of adorable. I love it there, it’s fantastic. And now I’m just super into the whole Somerville scene.”
Harsh winter conditions forced Compliments to largely stay off the road the last few months, so the focus shifted to catering. In addition to being open this summer around the Boston area, Compliments is also available to provide food for weddings, birthday parties or other events.
The downtime also gave Maclean a chance to give Tippy, that’s the Compliment’s Food Truck’s name, a fresh paint job. The moniker stems from the fact that the truck leans a little to one side.
“The food truck is like a person to us,” Maclean said. “I’m just kind of the caretaker of Tippy. She just kind of moves along on her own little life path. She’s kind of like the driving soul of the business.”
You can find Tippy driving all over the Boston area this summer, including some stops in Somerville like the pop-up Compliments did in January with Black Magic Coffee at Kitchen Inc.
“We’re looking to do some Somerville things,” Maclean said. “What I love about the Somerville scene is it’s very friendly. It’s a really good little community, it’s not like that over the river, it has a different feel.”
Images courtesy of Compliments Food Truck.