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Hatfield caterers Jimmy and Betsy Tarr join food truck craze

The Bistro Bus began serving in April, but has been off the road for a two-week hiatus. The Tarrs plan to be back on the road Tuesday with a retooled menu, serving lunch between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, in Northampton, Florence, Hatfield and other locations to be announced.

The Tarrs, who own Special Requests Catering in Hatfield, have been in the catering business for 25 years. In an interview Monday, Jimmy Tarr said the couple got the idea to open a food truck after watching “The Great Food Truck Race,” a reality television show on the Food Network.

As food trucks taking are off across the country, Betsy Tarr said, “We’re trying to bring this innovative food service to the Pioneer Valley.”

The Tarrs say there is overlap between working the food truck and the catering work they have been doing for years. But getting the truck itself ready took some work. The Tarrs found a truck in Syracuse, N.Y., that had been used for soft-serve ice cream and Hawaiian shaved ice. They drove it back to Massachusetts last November, and worked with area contractors to rebuild it for the Bistro Bus.

The Tarrs grew up in Springfield and Holyoke and have lived in Hatfield for 30 years. They see the food truck as a way to contribute to their community. “We shop locally, we serve locally, we buy our products locally, we use local contractors,” Jimmy said.

The Tarrs say they have noticed concern on the part of local restaurants who see them as competition. They say they plan to steer clear of downtown Northampton, but they say food trucks should not pose a threat to more traditional food service. “People that go to a restaurant go to sit down and be served,” Jimmy Tarr said. “This is a different concept.

“If we compete with anybody, it’s fast food restaurants,” he said.

The Tarrs want to distinguish the Bistro Bus from food carts that serve pre-made food as well as from both fast food and brick-and-mortar restaurants. Jimmy said that for food trucks to take off in the Pioneer Valley, owners need to educate the public. “We need to get the word out that this is not a junky thing,” he said. “This is a quality operation, as are some of the other food trucks that are out.”

The Tarrs said they make all of the Bistro Bus’s food fresh, from scratch, using as many local ingredients as are in season.

On Monday, the Bistro Bus served a free lunch to employees at the WHMP radio station in downtown Northampton. “When we go out on a day like today, the noodles for the noodle salad? Cooked this morning,” Jimmy Tarr said. “The vegetables for the noodle salad — prepped this morning.” The pork takes longer, but he said, “usually I cook it all day, and then serve it the next day.”

The Tarrs’ food truck model prioritizes simplicity. Almost all items on the menu are $6.50 or under. The Bistro Bus offers gluten-free and vegetarian options, but the Tarrs want to keep the menu manageable.

After an initial six weeks on the road, the Bistro Bus took a break for the past two weeks to accommodate the Tarrs’ catering schedule. They have been using that time to adjust the food truck’s menu based on the response so far, Jimmy Tarr said. He is preparing grilled cheese, caprese salad, and pulled pork sandwiches for the food truck’s return Tuesday.

Since they park in a different location each day, food trucks like the Bistro Bus depend on word of mouth and social media such as Facebook and Twitter to bring in customers. Technology is one aspect of the business they are still learning, Jimmy Tarr said.

Location, timing and weather also affect their business. The food truck season runs from about April through November, the Tarrs said. But, as Betsy Tarr said, “what we’re learning is, if it rains, nobody comes.” On a good day, the Tarrs said they serve between 50 and 60 customers.

Eventually, they would like to serve as many as 80 people a day. If the Bistro Bus takes off, the Tarrs say they may cut back on their catering business next year to shift their focus to the food truck.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Jimmy Tarr said.

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