FallEdible Boston

Pedaling Pops: Culinary Cruisers

FallEdible Boston

It’s hard to miss the  kombucha bicycle. Pedaled by Culinary Cruisers, a Somerville-based mobile food cart business, the cart is actually a massive wooden box attached to a two-wheel cruiser; it’s the only food cart on two wheels you’ll find at the farmers markets at City Hall, Harvard University, or the upcoming Somerville Winter’s Farmers Market. Atop the box is a tap handle, through which the pedaler-on-duty, usually founder Josh Danoff or one of his crew members, serves up Katalyst Kombucha (produced in Greenfield) by the glass or the jug.

“We started to talk about, and play with this idea of a food truck. But the more research we did, we started feeling really good about it being a bike,” says Josh. Founded in 2011 by Josh, his brother, sister, and a family friend, the mobile food cart business now has a fleet of bicycles that sell popsicles, locally made Spindrift Sodas, and the kombucha. And that’s just the beginning as the company is constantly prototyping. “The thing about our model is that it’s built to be a culinary incubator,” he says. “We have the ability to be a mobile test kitchen.”

Unfortunately, the point of prototypes is that they don’t always work the first time around. “We had this great bike design but there were a few fundamental flaws that made it tough to ride,” says Josh about their first, top-heavy cart. But they didn’t let the fact that their bike didn’t ride stop them from doing business. They simply transported the bike from market to market with a van.

Originally, the group considered selling kimchi. The Danoff siblings were spending a lot of time together several years back to rally around their father, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “Pops,” as the kids called him, once owned the health food store, Whole Wheat Trading Company in Amherst with his then wife. As Josh says, the kids were raised on “carob, tofu, and parents who didn’t believe in haircuts.”

During the difficult days facing their father’s illness, the siblings discussed the idea of selling a product like kimchi from a food truck. The idea evolved, the food truck was traded for a bicycle, and kimchi became kombucha. “It’s like a plan on a chalkboard. You can erase it, change it, and start all over,” says Josh.

Once they settled on kombucha, the concept was realized when Josh called the makers of Katalyst Kombucha and told them his plan of selling the fermented sweet tea on tap from a bike. They agreed, so Josh called Dara Olmstead, manager of the Harvard University Farmers Market to pitch his idea —she said, “of course.” From there, it was a matter of building out that first clunky prototype, which Josh himself manned most of last summer at the Harvard, Medford, and Charles Square markets and through the winter at the Somerville Market.

“Our bills got paid, I got paid, and there was a little money in the bank at the end of the year,” says Josh, allowing him to branch out and start exploring opportunities and collaborations with other small businesses. This past winter, Culinary Cruisers partnered with Somerville’s Kitchen, Inc., run by Mike Fuller, where they now have a production kitchen and plans for a potential retail operation. Culinary Cruisers runs a few of Fuller’s hot dog carts as well as a cart for locally made Spindrift Sodas. They’ve also started their own line of popsicles, called Ocean Ave. Pops, which are produced in their Somerville kitchen and named, of course, for their beloved dad who grew up onOcean Avenue in Brooklyn, New York.

The second round of bicycles are an improvement over that first prototype—the cooler boxes are compact and lightweight, making it easier for the bikes to ride. The popsicle fleet is now three strong and can be completely self sufficient (though, often, they are backed up by vehicular support since the boxes themselves don’t hold a full days’ worth of product). Josh hopes to be able to build more bikes as they partner with, or produce, new product lines.

As for the popsicles themselves, flavors like coconut-pineapple-blood orange, grapefruit-ginger, and watermelon-blueberry are going to change with the season. “We want to start using Stillman Farm basil or Kimball Farm peaches in order to make each farmers market even smaller,” says Josh. He envisions a huge directional sign, made to look like a giant popsicle stick that reads, “rhubarb, ten feet” or “watermelon, 5 feet.”

“That’s what Culinary Cruisers is. It’s creating all of these micro partnerships that can be mutually beneficial for everybody,” says Josh.

Culinary Cruisers move around so check their website for their updated schedule: culinarycruisers.com.

Erin Byers Murray is a Boston-area freelance writer who focuses on food and sustainability. Her memoir, Shucked, about the year-and-a-half she spent working on the flats with the team at Island Creek Oysters, was released in October. Erin can be reached at murray.erinb@gmail.com.