It seems that everyone these days loves food trucks. From high school kids to Blackberry-wielding professionals, food trucks attract customers of every age, race and profession. They create an atmosphere of public excitement, drawing throngs of bystanders for their quick, cheap, varied and invariably interesting food.
For example, food trucks on L.A.’s Miracle Mile offer barbecued brisket, pastrami sandwiches, Japanese and Brazilian fare, tacos, cupcakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, gourmet popcorn, as well as food with names as long as “Jidori Chicken Piadini with Crème Fraiche-Chimichurri Sauce, Brie Queso Blanco & Mixed Fruit Poke Salsa” — all prepared in half the time it takes to say the name.
The rough economy is leading more and more entrepreneurs, including immigrants and aspiring chefs, to start food trucks. By doing so, they avoid sinking the roughly $750,000 needed to start a restaurant, opting instead for the $20,000 price tag generally associated with launching a food truck business.
Television has picked up the craze, as the Food Network premiered “The Great Food Truck Race” this summer. The show features seven gourmet food trucks that travel from city to city across the country, competing to make the most money through creative entrepreneurial strategies.
But the TV show is more fiction than reality.
There’s a big reason many don’t see food trucks on their streets: regulation and red tape. Food trucks cannot just set up shop wherever they please.
In fact, in many cities, the food-truck revolution may fizzle before it even begins. Regulations already in place, or objections from the highly powerful restaurant business, have severely limited entrepreneurs’ ability to create their own food trucks and make them profitable.
Regulations to preserve public health are needed, of course, but cities frequently impose unreasonable restrictions on what food trucks may sell, where they may operate and for what length of time. The trucks in “The Great Food Truck Race” maximize their profits by choosing locations carefully, but most cities’ regulations require trucks to sit at fixed locations, which hinder a truck’s ability to respond to a dynamic customer base using social networking tools like Twitter — the very thing most of these trucks and carts need to survive.
For example, Philadelphia’s grid of permitted and unpermitted locations is so confusing that Kate Carrara, a former lawyer and now-owner of a cupcake truck, had no idea where she could park her truck. The city has now confiscated the truck twice.
In order to reduce unwelcome competition, Detroit and Jacksonville, Fla., among other cities, ban vending within a certain distance of other similar food businesses. The restaurant business in Washington, D.C., is seeking to block off whole sections of the city as inaccessible to food trucks, while limiting their time in accessible areas to 30 minutes — hardly enough time to set up.
Minneapolis recently began to allow food carts, but under severely restricted conditions. The number of food carts or trucks is limited to 20, and all must be associated with an existing licensed kitchen, and restricted to fixed locations on a few sidewalks and parking lots in downtown Minneapolis — not a recipe for success.
Where do we go from here? Clearly our cities could benefit greatly from a proliferation of food trucks. Regulations must be reduced to allow more permits to be issued, as well as provide food trucks with a greater flexibility in their choice of location, and thus their access to customers.
The resulting greater variety in foods will dramatically improve the gastronomical scene in the city, while boosting employment and economic opportunity. Brick-and-mortar restaurants will object to the new competition, but the response to them is simple: it is not the government’s job to block your competitors; if you want to succeed, make your food better or cheaper. As noted food writer Jonathan Gold says, “Great cooking always wins out.”
Jason Adkins is a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice. Therese Bart is an Institute for Justice law clerk and third-year student at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. For more information on government-imposed barriers to entrepreneurship, visit: www.ij.org/CityStudies.