Craving a gourmet meal on the fly? Food trucks plying American streets are delivering increasingly varied and sophisticated fare to the urban palate. Mobile kitchens offer hamburgers made from grass-fed cows, artisan breads, ethnic blends like Korean tacos and gourmet dishes that stand up next to fine fare from the brick-and-mortar sector.
The explosion contributes color and variety to cities, arguably invigorating urban spaces in a tough economy. But the popular trucks also present new problems — traffic and sanitation issues and resistance from traditional restaurants. So, while some cities are loosening restrictions on food trucks, others are revising and updating legislation to control the growth.
In Seattle, as part of a campaign to revitalize public spaces, the City Council recently passed legislation it hopes will encourage the food truck business — allowing them to operate along curbside in the city. Previously, food trucks could only operate on private property in Seattle, such as grocery store parking lots.
“Prior to passage of this legislation I would say we were behind,” said Gary Johnson, center city coordinator for the Seattle government. Johnson has spearheaded a plan to spice up street life in Seattle, which started by making it easier and cheaper to open sidewalk cafes.
“We felt like people sitting in the right of way or on sidewalks enjoying food and good wine was a nice element,” he said. “I’m hoping this (new law) really advances street food here and we will see a lot more. ... I’m hoping we’ll see a lot of culinary creativity in trucks.”
The new legislation bans food trucks from serving customers within 50 feet of an existing eatery. But traditional restaurant owners, already struggling in a tough economy, remain opposed.
“They have an advantage from the get-go,” says Charbel Chalhoub, owner of Deli Shez Café. He said his business is down 80 percent since a taco truck set up shop in a nearby parking lot. “Our overhead is way higher… We pay $3,000 a month for rent. They pay about $100 dollars.”
The restaurant, which serves modestly priced Greek food, was getting a lot of its business from traffic at the nearby Mexican Consulate, but the taco truck is positioned so it can intercept people when they park, Chalhoub said.
Cauldron of creativity
But supporters say food trucks bolster chefs and entrepreneurs who don't have the funds to start full-blown restaurants. Existing restaurants also can use food trucks to test recipes and neighborhoods to see what resonates with consumers before jumping into a brick-and-mortar commitment, they say.
“It’s a great entrepreneurial move for someone who wants to start a restaurant when credit is tight… Also for consumers because they tend to be very affordable (and) convenient — they come to you, if you will,” said Annika Stensson, director of media relations at the National Restaurant Association. "And they have a lot of exciting menu items."
The organization is supportive of the new generation food trucks, which are sometimes start-up businesses, but may be fielded by existing restaurants to expand their reach.
"There are tensions. The restaurant industry is very competitive, especially during challenging economic times, she said. "But anecdotally, most food truck owners are respectful of brick-and-mortar restaurants."
Paul Raney, 47, who quit his job in December to start a barbecue restaurant in Seattle hopes to benefit from the city's new rules.
The first time food entrepreneur had trouble finding a property with the right features and location. He also wasn’t having any luck getting financing, despite having impeccable credit and many years of experience in the food industry.
“We went to three banks,” said Raney. “Basically they said you can apply but you are not going to get a loan.”
Raney went to Plan B — a BBQ food truck that he could afford to self-finance. He perfected his dry rub, the 12- to 14-hour slow cook process, the sauce and the logo. He hopes to have Raney Brothers BBQ operating by mid-August. He’ll start in a private location, but is looking into the newly available public option.
“My goal is to have a second truck within a couple of years. Then start moving toward a brick-and-mortar place and continue doing the trucks. Hopefully by that time, things will loosen up on the finance side of things.”
The front runner of today’s food truck trend is clearly the mobile taqueria serving authentic Mexican food to immigrant workers. Today, it is so much more.
“There’s always been the stereotypical road trucks that sell tacos at work sites and travel around,” said Lance Marlow, manager of Seattle’s famous pig-shaped food truck Maximus Minimus. “But as far as this new type of food truck with gourmet food from local ingredients—which really offer a new touch—that really started in 2008, 2009. ... And then it just exploded from there.”
The pig serves pulled pork and veggie sandwiches with all natural, local ingredients, and was recently named one of the top 15 food trucks in the country by the food site Relish.com.
This is the type of variety Seattle is attempting to encourage. But chain restaurants are beginning to field food trucks, too — Sizzlers, Jack in the Box, Cousins Submarines, Toppers Pizza and Tasti D-Lite among them.
Anticipating these big players, the city rejected a proposal to offer public sites to the highest bidders — a plan they feared would benefit only those with the deepest pockets.
“That could result in McDonalds and Quizno’s at all the choice locations,” said Johnson. “And that would be counter to our desire to see diversity of interesting unique creative food trucks and carts. We didn’t want to see that corporate anonymity in our neighborhoods.”
In Chicago the City Council is also trying to press for changes that would bring in a fleet of new-generation food trucks. At the moment, food trucks can only dispense food that was prepared in licensed commercial kitchens. New rules, would allow the trucks to cook food on site. But the trucks would also be restricted to sites at least 200 feet from existing eateries — a distance that will make legal locations scarce.
Tapping the brakes
While Seattle and Chicago encourage food trucks, some cities are now trying to rein in their moveable feasts.
Portland has been a vendor’s Mecca, with more than 600 food trucks and carts — at least twice the number as larger Seattle, flourishing under comparatively relaxed rules. For one thing they are allowed to contain their clean up facilities, rather than return to a commissary each night for cleanup. Over time, however, some of these food trucks have so rarely moved that they had built decks, patios and awnings that didn’t meet code. Now a move is afoot to get these illegal structures built to code or removed.
In New York City, food trucks lost a court case regulating metered parking spaces, and now they are regularly ticketed, towed or asked to move right in the middle of their lucrative lunch rush.
The new interpretation of the law makes it “onerous” for food trucks to operate, said David Weber, president of the non-profit New York City Food Truck Association.
At the same time, New York operators are grappling with a web of vending codes that have evolved over 100 years — some of which are ill-suited to the mobile eateries and unevenly enforced.
“It’s hard to even get a handle on what the rules are… and how these rules are understood over time,” said Weber, who owns a restaurant and runs two food trucks in the city.
One rule on the books requires every food truck employee to have certification to collect sales tax — and getting that certification takes two months.
The rule made sense when nearly all vendors owned small carts selling hotdogs or popcorn and had no employees, said Weber. But for food truck owners with a staff, it’s a hardship.
“It’s hard to attract and retain talented staff,” said Weber, who is an owner of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in the city, and two Rickshaw Dumpling trucks. “And it’s a huge burden on these entrepreneurs, because the consequence (of not complying) is $1,000 fine.
“Often street vendors are seen as parasitic. But we want to be part of the community where we vend," he said. "We are asking the city for a suite of regulations that reflect the changes in the city that will allow (the business) to continue to grow… and contribute to the city in terms of taxes, jobs, culinary innovation, tourism."
Twitter a taco
Despite some bumps in the road, there are few signs the food-truck frenzy is waning.
Companies that build and outfit the kitchens in food trucks report booming business. In a National Restaurant Association annual chef survey, food trucks were expected to be the “hottest operational trend” of 2011.
It is already hot among young urbanites who enthusiastically review their favorites on line, and follow their locations on Twitter and Facebook. New apps, like Mobile Meteor, allow food truck operators help vendors reach their customers through their smart phones.
“I don’t see it turning down in the near future,” said Marlow, manager of Seattle's Maximus Minimus. “I do see it maturing … but we’re not there yet.”