Cambridge Food Truck Pilot Helps ‘The Pull-Up’ Get in Gear

9/19/20185 years ago

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The Pull Up LLC customer

When Robin Brown learned that the Cambridge Food Truck Pilot was accepting applications last year, it was perfect timing for the young restaurateur. He had recently flown 3,000 miles to Oregon to purchase a truck, fridge, stovetop, and fryolator. The cross-country ride home marked the first time his food truck, The Pull-Up LLC, was on the road, but for Brown, 28, the journey to entrepreneurship was years in the making.

Brown grew up in East Cambridge, where food was central to family life. His father instilled in him a love of collard greens, cornbread and other Southern comfort food, and he spent hours in the kitchen with his maternal grandmother, Luz, making Puerto Rican and Columbian recipes. “I always had a love for cooking and experimenting in the kitchen,” Brown says.

Brown graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 2008 and majored in Business Economics at UMass Lowell. While working as a medical transport driver in 2016, he was in an accident that left him temporarily disabled. Immobilized and unable to work, he descended into a depression until his unhappiness put his life goals into sharper focus. “It took me to lose everything in order to gain everything,” he reflects.

He began channeling his energy into his dream of owning a restaurant, starting with a food truck. He developed a business plan and refined recipes for the “Latin Soul Food” that his truck would offer. A few months later, he found a red truck on Craigslist and booked his ticket to the West Coast.

Brown expected to begin vending upon his return to Cambridge, but he soon learned his new business would have to go through several City processes before he could legally operate. The Cambridge Food Truck Pilot, which he applied to last November, helped him navigate the necessary steps.

“As a new business owner, I had no idea what the process was for being able to operate in Cambridge,” Brown explained. “The program has been really helpful in getting my business off the ground and helping me get the necessary permits, licenses, and inspections.”

The Pull-Up debuted in April 2018, with shifts at North Point Park and Central Square through the Cambridge Food Truck Pilot, in addition to a Wednesday lunchtime shift at Vecna Robotics in Alewife.

Brown’s bestselling items are carne guisada (beef stew), fried chicken, and empanadas. Batches of rice and beans are seasoned with his grandmother’s sofrito recipe, a blend of Latin spices. The truck has gained a reputation for its generous portions and reasonable prices, and customers are often lining up outside of The Pull Up at the start of Brown’s shifts.

The Cambridge Food Truck Pilot, which gave special consideration to new businesses, provided a platform for Brown to gain exposure, finesse his food prep strategy, and refine his menu offerings. “When I first started, I didn’t have the money for any kind of logo; The Pull-Up was just a red truck,” he explains. After customers mentioned that they had trouble recognizing his business, Brown worked with an artist to develop a logo, which incorporates The Pull-Up’s signature empanada in the design

During his first weeks of vending, the popular empanadas sold out before the end of shifts, so he adjusted food quantities to meet customer demand. He also addressed unexpected patron requests. “I didn’t have vegetarian options on my menu until I got repeated requests from customers,” he explains. “Initially, I would make rice and bean tostones on the spot for them, but now I have incorporated vegetarian dishes into the menu. In addition to the tostones, I offer a rice, bean, and plantain plate.” Brown appreciates that the Pilot program has allowed room for innovation and adjustment. “I never want to be stagnant,” he says.

The Pull-Up’s business is far from stagnant. Over the past 6 months, he’s added a second shift at the Vecna location and expanded within the Pilot’s schedule, picking up a shift at the Cambridgeport location on Fridays. After being accepted into the Harvard Square Business Association, he began vending at the Harvard Science Center on Sundays and Mondays this September.

Brown initially named his business The Pull-Up for the sense of convenient dining it evoked, but as it has grown, the name has taken on a more symbolic meaning. “The Pull-Up reflects my path in life. I have been through a lot, starting from humble beginnings and going through feelings of hopelessness after my accident. Now, I have pulled myself up from my hardships to become the CEO of my own business and am 100% committed to being an entrepreneur.”

Brown’s business pursuits are just starting. Someday, he would like to open a brick and mortar restaurant, with a menu that reflects the eclectic combinations of The Pull-Up. “I’d love to offer everything from filet mignon to Gruyere Mac & Cheese -- to strike the balance between casual and up-scale dining,” Brown explains. He’s also looking into vending options in Boston and other neighboring cities.

In the meantime, Cambridge is never far from his mind. He hopes to partner with CRLS in the future, perhaps by providing internships to students interested in the food industry, and he gives back to the community whenever he can, often sharing leftover food with the homeless.

“This is my city, and I specifically chose Cambridge to make my mark. I know the city like the back of my hand, and I’m proud to be a Cantabrigian,” he says.

Click here for the full Cambridge Food Truck Pilot schedule 

Food Truck Pilot North Point Photo Credit: Molly Akin