The Roving Lunchbox
Photos by Betty Liu
Melissa Lynch had been dreaming about this truck for so long, and it was finally ready.
The Roving Lunch Box was small for a food truck, only 14 feet long, the exterior white with a red-checkered bottom half. In a rush to meet city deadlines for approval to operate the truck, Lynch had planned the interior setup of the truck in only four hours. But her kitchen needs were simple as food trucks go. The primary piece of required equipment was an oven to make her signature “hand pies:” handheld pastries stuffed with every flavor combination she could think of.
In June 2015 on the Roving Lunch Box’s first day on the road, Lynch crowded into the truck with her new chef who stood north of six feet tall. She realized that she had forgotten something while customizing her tiny kitchen.
“Every time he turned around, he hit the light fixture and the door,” says Lynch, laughing. “I’m realizing, I’m only 5-foot-4. So from my perspective, everything is fine. I never even thought that a tall person might need to be in here.”
Lynch began the Roving Lunch Box in October 2013, selling her hand pies at local farmers markets. Her passion for hand pies grew out of the classic Cornish pasty: beef, potatoes, onions, and often turnips, seasoned and tucked into a pastry.
She was raised in Sacramento by a Welsh-Scottish mother and an American father, both of whom were excellent cooks. After serving a couple years in the Peace Corps, moving to Boston for an MBA at Boston University, and then spending 18 years working in the software industry, she eventually hit “that clichéd midlife ‘I want something different’” moment at the same time that her company was reorganizing. Her husband pushed her to start her own business.
“I naively thought—I had just come from corporate America—I could do delivered lunches,” says Lynch. “Boxed lunches, bring them to wherever, make an arrangement with different companies, say, in an office park or something, and deliver. Out of the back of my Hyundai! I quickly found out that was not going to work.”
With regulations preventing her from working out of a home kitchen, she rented a commercial kitchen in a VFW in Medford and started exploring the farmers’ market scene.
Taking inspiration from the Cornish pasties that her mother had made, Lynch evolved the idea of a handheld meal in a pastry shell to include other flavor combinations: curried lentil, Reuben sandwich, spiced pumpkin, Cuban sandwich, bananas foster. If the flavors taste good to begin with, she bets that they will taste even better in a pastry.
“My favorite these days…” She pauses, smiles, and shakes her head. “It’s like picking a child! The favorite child.”
But Lynch feels especially sentimental about the Cornish pasty, which was the first item on the Roving Lunch Box’s menu. Every time she tastes one, she says, it reminds her of her mom. While other items rotate through the menu, she tries to keep the Cornish pasty available almost all the time.
After a year in the farmers markets, Lynch started the process of obtaining a food truck and the appropriate licenses to operate in the Boston area—a more complicated process than she had initially realized.
She had hoped to kick off with the other trucks at the start of the food truck season in April, but missed deadlines in the food truck permitting process and couldn’t start until June. This meant losing out on two months’ worth of income and hype in an acutely seasonal business.
“Everyone warns you about making sure that you give yourself enough time for the business to stabilize, but I didn’t quite realize how important that is in a very seasonal industry,” says Lynch. “I thought I had it planned out, but I could use one more month of summer or even fall.”
The Roving Lunch Box operates in Boston as well as Malden, Medford, and Watertown. Each town has its own permitting process and regulations. For instance, Boston imposes additional regulations upon food trucks that brick-and-mortar restaurants are not subject to. Food trucks must recycle, are required to have a healthy option on their menus, and are banned from selling soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi.
“I went to school for public and non-profit management,” says Lynch. “I’m for all those things. But if you’re talking about a level playing field for business people, and you’re not requiring those from other businesses in that environment, I’m not sure that it’s fair. It should just be applied across the board.”
Despite the quirky regulations, Lynch is glad she opted for a food truck over a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“I think my apprehension about a brick-and-mortar is location, location, location,” says Lynch. “You’re locked into wherever you start. That frankly terrified me.”
Many successful Boston-area food trucks have opened their own brick-and-mortar locations, including Clover, Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, Mei Mei, and Bon Me. Doing so helps trucks mitigate the cost of renting expensive commissary space. But while Lynch isn’t ruling out a brick-and-mortar as a future possibility, she is enjoying life on the truck. She loves being able to select her venues, she says. The mobile nature of the truck gives her the flexibility to respond to demand.
“We do a nice mix of festivals and then lunchtime crowds and then some direct catering,” says Lynch. “It’s something new all the time. I love it.”
This story appeared in the Winter 2016 issue.