Self-taught New Yorker pioneers ecofriendly food trucks

| by Elliot Maras
Self-taught New Yorker pioneers ecofriendly food trucks

Max Crespo, left, joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg and T. Boone Pickens of Clean Energy Fuels at a press conference in 2013 to introduce Neapolitan Express. Photo courtesy of Neapolitan Express

When Max Crespo launched his first pizza truck in 2006, he quickly decided that he didn't like the fuel emissions and the odor they created. More importantly, he didn't like worrying about the possibility that the propane tank might ignite. He concluded that a propane tank in close proximity to a stationary power generator presented a safety risk. 

"They're multiple forms of hydrocarbons under one box," he said referring to gasoline and diesel-powered generators and propane tanks. He believes that municipalities have largely turned a blind eye to the dangers posed by many food trucks.

"Those generators are not meant to be operating for 10 hours a day," he said. "What they spew out to the environment is terrible."

Crespo made it his mission to develop a food truck that used compressed natural gas, a cleaner and safer fuel, both for the truck engine and for cooking. He spent a great deal of time researching fueling systems and working on a design for a vehicle powered by natural gas.

In time, this effort led to the creation of Neapolitan Express, an enterprise consisting of 30 eco-friendly pizza trucks and seven restaurants.

Neapolitan Express trucks emit no diesel or gas exhaust.

Crespo's clean-energy food truck initiative has also been rewarded with the support of some major backers, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and philanthropist T. Boone Pickens, owner of Clean Energy Fuels, a manufacturer and supplier of natural gas. 

"We've been very lucky," he said.

Neapolitan Express formally introduced itself at a February 2013 press conference attended by Bloomberg, Pickens, Crespo and the truck's crew. Bloomberg said it was the lowest carbon emission food truck of its size ever built.

Customers were quick to appreciate not only high quality pizza — which Crespo claims is the city's best — but also the cleanliness and safety of the food truck. 

"He's a revolutionary when it comes to this space," said Matt Geller, president of the National Food Truck Association.

Geller credits Crespo for improving the safety and sanitation of food trucks, but said that he still believes it is possible for food trucks to use propane tanks safely. He acknowledges, though, that safety requirements are not uniform and can vary by jurisdiction.

The state of Washington, for example, does not permit propane tanks on the back of food trucks. According to a spokesman for the state's Department of Labor and Industries tanks must be isolated in a sealed and vented compartment, or placed underneath the truck and separated from the exhaust system.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, Rochester, New York, requires that food trucks must, at all times, have at least one person on board who is trained in handling and exchanging propane tanks. 

A self-taught entrepreneur

Crespo didn't have a background in business when he embarked on his quest to develop a clean energy food truck. But as the son of immigrants, he was motivated from early childhood to operate his own business. He jokes that he graduated "summa cum laude" from the "University of Lexington Avenue."

He became interested in food trucks when he saw a line of people outside a nightclub at 4 a.m. waiting to be served shish kebabs.

He sold nearly everything he owned to launch Neapolitan Express with one truck, which he designed and built himself over a period of nine months. He had some hospitality management experience, but no manufacturing or culinary background.

After deciding that he wanted his food truck to be a clean-energy vehicle, Crespo initially considered biodiesel fuel, but he came to the conclusion that, firstly, biodiesel fuels wouldn't work well in cold weather, and secondly, that only a fraction of the biodiesel solution was actually biodiesel.

Crespo ultimately decided that renewable natural gas — methane from landfills, farms, anaerobic digesters and waste treatment centers — offered the best option.

"It's a truly inexhaustible fueling system that's 100 percent renewable," he said. 

Clean Energy Fuels invests

Word of Crespo's project got to Clean Energy Fuels, who got in touch with the entrepreneur. This contact ultimately led Crespo to T. Boone Pickens, who immediately wanted to invest in the concept. Crespo didn't wish to divulge the amount of Pickens' investment, simply saying that it was "a lot."

Clean Energy Fuels provided the food truck's V10 engine, which runs on natural gas. Crespo designed the fueling system himself, and holds three patents on the design. The system supports a Caterpillar generator, the truck's Cuppone and Izzo ovens, a True refrigerator and gelato machine, and a Lavazza coffee machine.

Crespo also installed a POS system using First Data and Square equipment, and says that his was one of the first New York City food trucks to be POS-enabled. He declined to say how much he spent on his first food truck; he'd rather talk about what it's saving the environment. Eliminating diesel emissions from just that one truck is the equivalent of removing 300 trucks from the road, he said. 

"I was able to build something that no one has ever done before," he said. "We've beautified city streets by having a new clean design that's safe and better for the environment — and better for the people." 

Part two of this two-part series will explore how Crespo won the support of New York City, which helped him to grow his truck fleet and expand into the brick-and-mortar restaurant business.

Photos courtesy of Neapolitan Express

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Equipment & Supplies, Food & Beverage, Franchising & Growth, Health & Nutrition, Independent Operators, Social Responsibility, Systems / Technology, Trends / Statistics, Vehicles

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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