Patrick Lynch and Ali Fong entered a Boston food-truck competition on a whim seven years ago.
They were tasked with designing a business plan, creating a video about the concept, and then preparing dishes for a 500-person taste test at City Hall Plaza. The concept, Bon Me, emerged victorious, and Lynch and Fong were among the first food trucks to hit the streets in Boston when they launched in 2011. Now, six years later, Bon Me has 17 units split among trucks, food carts, and seven brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“[Lynch] comes from a finance background, and I come from a food background, so when we opened our first truck, we didn’t know what we were doing. But we also kept in mind that we wanted to open more trucks,” Fong says. “And with the opening of restaurants, we knew we wanted something that was replicable.”
While the menu is rooted in Asian flavors, Fong—who graduated from The Culinary Institute of America—puts her own spin on dishes. The signature Bon Me sandwich, the restaurant’s take on the Vietnamese bánh mì, combines pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, red onion, house-made spicy mayo, and house-made pork pâté.
The rest of the mix-and-match-style menu combines bases such as a rice bowl or noodle salad with protein choices like char siu pork (a Cantonese-style barbecued pork), roasted soy and paprika tofu, and a 12-spice rubbed chicken.
“It was very important to me to put our own Bon Me twist on everything, because you can get really awesome bánh mì sandwiches in Boston, so there’s no reason in my mind to create something that already exists,” Fong says. “Our fillings are what make it nontraditional, and they come from all sorts of places, but many have Asian roots.”
Each quarter, Bon Me introduces something new to the menu. Specials have included vegan summer items, such as Miso-Braised Eggplant & Black Beans, Spicy Sesame Chickpeas, and a side salad with cucumber and Fuji apples.
Fong says Bon Me’s approach to menu specials differs from many other fast casuals. “Our truck/restaurant model is set up differently on the back end than your typical fast-casual restaurant concept. So a lot of the reasons why things are different is because we have a very flexible model that accommodates both trucks and restaurants,” she says. “And they operate in very different ways.”
FOUNDERS: Ali Fong and Patrick Lynch
YEAR STARTED: 2011
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 17 (7 restaurants plus 10 trucks and stalls)
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
Bon Me’s fleet has grown to eight trucks, which traverse Boston and surrounding areas like Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts. Bon Me posts truck locations on Twitter so guests across town can track down a meal. All units are company-owned, and Fong says Bon Me has no immediate plans to franchise.
While other markets outside Boston are on the table, Fong and Lynch are content staying in their hometown, which is filled with the ideal clientele who love dining out. They do not have a concrete plan for the long-term future, but do plan to open more locations, Fong says.
“Every food-truck operator dreams about opening restaurants, and we’ve been opening restaurants, but we still have loved the truck model,” she says.
Though Bon Me has grown to more than 180 employees, it has retained a commitment to its founding values and to various causes throughout the community. The brand announced in 2016 that it would raise its starting pay for permanent employees to $15 per hour by the end of 2018, joining restaurants across the country in the “Fight for $15” living-wage movement.
“I’ve been working in in the industry as a prep cook and employee for many years, and I know how hard it is for people to better themselves in America. A lot of people who are working in the industry are immigrants,” Fong says. “We’re really happy to be one of the leaders in the Boston area for the Fight for $15.”
Bon Me also works with local organizations and the city of Boston to make an impact on the local workforce. For example, Bon Me works closely with the nonprofit Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which provides social services—including English language classes and retail skills training—to Asian-American and Asian immigrant families. Bon Me has placed more than 12 of these candidates into jobs with the restaurant.
Bon Me is also part of the Boston Women’s Workforce Council, with which it works to eliminate gender gaps in wages by reporting employee demographics and salary data and assessing its hiring practices. Nurturing employees is a top priority; nearly all of its managers and supervisors have been promoted from within.
“People can start wherever they start as a crew member in our company, and it’s our job as an employer to give them the potential to move up,” Fong says.