For Max Crespo of Neapolitan Express, establishing environmental sustainability in your business means going “green all the way.” After experimenting with multiple types of fuel to power his pizza company’s food trucks, he discovered natural gas was the best choice for building a mobile restaurant that was safe and eco-friendly.
“I tried everything,” says Crespo. “You can’t cook with diesel, the noise from the generators was so loud and the smell was terrible. And too much electrical power is needed to run a food truck.”
Crespo first decided to sell pizza from a food truck in 2005 when it was too expensive to rent space near his New York City nightclub. He outfitted his first food truck, a Utilimaster step-van, in 2006.
According to Crespo, “It was built like every other food truck. It was a hodgepodge collection of hydrocarbons all mixed up under one box. You have a spark-igniting engine running on diesel, with a spark-igniting generator running on gasoline and propane used for cooking.”
After operating his food truck for a year, it took some time for Crespo to research and find experts to complete a CNG conversion.
“It took almost two years to figure out everything and get the kinks worked out,” says Crespo. “This isn’t your typical conversion that can be done in a day. We are converting everything on the truck to be able to run off of natural gas, including the stove for cooking.”
The first CNG-powered Neapolitan Express food truck was unveiled by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in February 2013. In the past year, Neapolitan Express has increased that number to three CNG food trucks, with the goal to have 20 trucks by the end of the year.
So what are the advantages to using CNG over other fuels, especially when it comes to operating food trucks?
The Conversion Process
Retrofitted with a 55 gas-gallon equivalent tank onboard, each Neapolitan Express food truck uses about 50 gallons of natural gas a day for fuel and cooking, in 20-hour shifts.
When Neapolitan Express’ drivers need to fuel up, they use natural gas provider Clean Energy’s retail fueling stations. Currently, there are three Clean Energy CNG locations in New York City.
“Using natural gas, we save 50% on fuel costs in New York City, or $120 a day per truck,” Crespo says.
Crespo worked closely with Clean Energy to spec the trucks and purchased them through a Clean Energy program. Built on Ford E-450 Super Duty Stripped Chasses, the trucks are converted to natural gas engines by Green Alternative Systems (GAS) in Indiana and shipped to New York.
The CNG tanks run both the generator and engine, so there’s no idling of the main engine when cooking, says Crespo. During the conversion process, Crespo also became knowledgeable about natural gas installation through a certification class.
“Max is a trail blazer,” says Peter Grace, senior vice president at Clean Energy. “He has taken the potential of natural gas to new heights by not only fueling the first food truck in the nation by natural gas but also cooking with it, rather than the far dirtier and more dangerous alternatives.”
Neapolitan Express’ natural gas fleet isn’t just limited to his food trucks. Its Ford family also features CNG-converted vans and trucks for transferring supplies and making deliveries. These include an F-350 Super Duty pickup truck and E-Series cargo vans.
When it comes to operating in New York City, maintenance is very important. Crespo admits that “one year in New York is like seven years of wear and tear on a fleet vehicle elsewhere.” So far, GAS hasn’t seen any problems with the CNG vehicles, says Crespo. With natural gas being a cleaner fuel, oil changes don’t have to be done as often as gasoline or diesel fuel engines.
High-Tech All the Way
A natural gas engine is only the beginning of Neapolitan Express’ green and high-tech fleet. For hot water, each food truck features a natural-gas tank with a hot water heating system. Natural gas is also used to cook the pizzas — the oven burns at 900 degrees and can cook pizzas in less than 70 seconds. Only organic ingredients are used.
“Other food trucks have diesel generators [not running on the same fueling system that powers the engine] and propane tanks hanging out the back of the vehicle to cook from,” says Crespo. “Propane tanks in an enclosed area can be a hazard.”
Neapolitan Express promotes a cleaner environment through the use of 100% recycled and compostable paper products including boxes, cups and napkins. To reduce paper usage, each food truck features seven iPads that operate its point-of-sale system and employee check-ins, as well as act as mobile hotspots. By trying to eliminate cash transactions, Crespo wants to run a completely digital business.
The food trucks feature state-of-the-art kitchen equipment that runs off electricity produced by the generator. The trucks also have solar panels to help charge the batteries and power some LED lights, says Crespo. When hosting a specialty event, the trucks have the ability to plug into outside electrical power for an even cleaner operation.
Each vehicle’s upfitting also includes a clean and open design. Inspired by friend Ian Schrager (co-founder of Studio 54), Crespo wanted to emphasize attention to detail with his “floating, open kitchen on the road.”
Those details include custom-fit ceilings and cabinets featuring titanium stainless steel and open glass. “I wanted people to see inside the food trucks. People eat with their eyes and ears before they eat with their mouth,” says Crespo.
Expanding the Brand
Currently, Neapolitan Express has three CNG-powered food trucks and a staff of 110 employees with 10 drivers. With plans to increase its fleet to 20 by the end of the year, Neapolitan Express also plans to expand into new cities.
About five food trucks are being converted every six weeks with help from partners Clean Energy and Green Alternative Systems.
“Passion and entrepreneurship are principles Clea n Energy lives by, which is why our partnership with Max and Neapolitan Express has been so fruitful and is now poised to expand to new markets across the country,” says Grace.
Neapolitan Express continues to build its brand using the latest social media platforms, the newest equipment to fit the task and the best ingredients for the pizzas. “If you are in the business with only one truck, go buy an old used vehicle and make money off it,” says Crespo. “We want to build a brand. When you build a brand, you don’t do it by buying something old and used and slopping paint on it. You do it by buying the best products.”
The one-year anniversary of its first CNG food truck is just the beginning for this pizza company.
“Scalability is the issue,” says Crespo. “We created a product and process that can be scaled. We can make the same pizza in New York and other locations. We are a brand that started mobile and hopefully will be in every state.”