Regulators Put Brakes on Food Truck Vendors

Food trucks are hot — and we’re not just referring to their mobile kitchens. According to the National Restaurant Association, the street-food trend is gaining momentum, with 59 percent of adults in the U.S. reporting that they’d buy from a food truck if it was operated by one of their favorite restaurants. That’s up from 47 percent a year ago.

food trucksAs the vendors of meals on wheels expand their fan base, they’re getting more scrutiny from municipal regulators, who tend to cite public safety concerns when denying permits for the vehicles, often bowing to pressure from other local businesses or constituents who own or lease buildings for food service. (A food truck operator’s lower overhead gives him or her a considerable competitive cost advantage over a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.)

As well, food truck parking restrictions put an enforcement burden on police, who in some cities are now tasked with shooing vendors off a street. In Chicago, cupcake purveyor Tiffany Kurtz recently served customers in an alley in an effort to evade the cops. “It was like a drug deal,” she told The Wall Street Journal, recounting how she had warned customers, “just take them and run.”

Other rules are just plain bizarre. Despite being “considered one of the top food destinations” in the U.S., a constituent-driven effort continues to advocate for liberalizing Chicago’s food laws, which currently ban cooking on trucks. Restauranteurs have responded to the effort by expressing concerns over allowing food trucks to prepare food on board, and citing sanitation hazards. Yet, political jockeying for better access to consumers is undoubtedly a factor, too. Food truck operators in Chicago are currently limited to selling only prepackaged food, since the proposed change to the food-truck ordinance still sits in committee. As of October, Elizabeth Gomez, director of outreach for Chicago’s 32nd Ward, said there’s no timeline for when the law may be amended to allow the cooking of food on a food truck.

The economics of food-truck operations may have a large bearing on the debate over loosening the restrictions on Chicago food trucks. According to the Wall Street Journal article, the upfront investment required for mobile food service is about a seventh of that of opening a restaurant: $150,000 vs. $1 million. In an article in QSR Magazine, restauranteurs in Chicago have argued that spread gives mobile operators an unfair advantage.

But not every city is against the trend. In June 2011, the Baltimore Sun reported that new rules had been put in place in the city allowing food truck operators to park in any valid parking space. The city removed previous restrictions that required food trucks to park at least 300 feet away from a restaurant, and replaced them with “common sense and courtesy,” according to the article. Additionally, the legislation created five “Pilot Food Truck Zones,” which feature signage designating certain areas as legal for mobile truck parking.

About Jan Fletcher

Jan Fletcher, President of Dreamcatch Creative, reports on restaurant operations, the signage industry, and composite manufacturing. She also writes about technology in business and education, and is passionate about microenterprise.
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