“If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
When the founder of “Latinos for Trump” uttered this warning about immigration policy in 2016, he probably thought such a situation was the portent of end-times in America. Instead, the backlash and meme-making in support of such a delicious invasion highlighted the popularity of food trucks.
A brief history of mobile food vending
Food carts have been an American tradition since colonial days—and certain elements have viewed them as a nuisance for almost as long, too. In 1691, New York City passed what are considered the first street food regulations, prohibiting sales until two hours after the market opened. Wheels became de rigeur after a 1761 rule, known as the “Thirty Minute Law,” made it illegal for vendors to stay in one place for longer than half an hour.
The industry evolved in the 19th century, particularly to serve remote areas with little access to home-cooked meals. In 1866, Texas rancher Charles Goodnight introduced the “chuck wagon”, which fed cowboys on their cattle drives. Walter Scott created his horse-drawn “lunch wagon”—the forerunner to the modern diner—in 1872, feeding industrial workers who clocked out after restaurants had closed. In the 1890s, sausage vendors (known as “dog wagons”) became staples of college campuses.
These conveniences soon gained an unwanted reputation: that of the “roach coach.” Seizing on these supposedly unsanitary conditions—along with the perennial gripes about traffic—a 1905 complaint in The New York Times claimed that “no argument has yet been advanced to show that any public interest is served by licensing street obstructions in the shape of movable stalls and hucksters’ wagons.” It’s a complaint that continues to ring true in many places today.
Today’s food truck is the product of coincidence
The modern taco truck dates to 1974, when Raul Martinez Sr. renovated an old ice cream truck and started selling tacos in East Los Angeles. Within six months, his outpost, King Taco, had opened its first permanent location; the company continues to operate nearly two dozen stores.
But today’s food truck craze took flight in 2008, rising from the ashes of what Time magazine called “The Great Taco Truck War” of Los Angeles. Although L.A. had 14,000 taco trucks, it wasn’t until Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go started selling kimchi-infused burritos that any variety was available. Not even two years later, the food truck trend had grown so quickly that The Food Network launched “The Great Food Truck Race.”
How did this happen? There are at least two good reasons, the timing of which aligned in a delicious coincidence.
One was the rise of social media, which allowed hungry devotees to track the location of their favorite truck in (near) real time. Before the advent of Twitter, taco trucks would need to visit the same location regularly to build a clientele and a reputation. Now, fans would sit at their office computers, eagerly pressing F5 on their browsers so that they could be first in line once their truck revealed that day’s location.
The other stemmed from the scrappiness that arose in the depths of the Great Recession. Compared to restaurants, food trucks are far less expensive to set up and maintain; for one thing, street parking—when you have to pay for it—is much cheaper than rent, and you don’t need to have a bathroom. What’s more, from a self-satisfaction perspective, trucks afford their “food artists” a level of creativity that’s discouraged in the average restaurant.
After all, have you ever heard of a restaurant that serves Irish-Eritrean fusion?
Conflicts with restaurants & government protectionism
To say the proprietors of brick-and-mortar restaurants didn’t like these entrepreneurs is an understatement. They viewed food trucks as substitute goods—competitors who had a distinct advantage in pricing and flexibility. In many places, they sought relief from the government.
As a result, a number of cities instituted “distance requirements” for food trucks. In Minneapolis, for example, food trucks need to be at least 100 feet away from a restaurant; it’s 200 feet in Chicago, and 300 feet in San Antonio. Food truck advocates have lambasted these regulations as explicit attempts to protect the restaurant industry rather than support the entrepreneurial spirit and maintain free markets.
As you might imagine, these rules severely restrict food trucks’ ability to do business, particularly in the busiest areas of the city: because of Chicago’s law, an estimated 97% of the downtown area is off-limits to trucks. Due in part to this regulation, Chicago has just 120 food trucks today compared with 115 in 2012, when the restrictions took effect.
But are restaurants’ worries founded? A 2017 study by The Economist concluded that, in fact, an increase in food trucks is correlated with an increase in restaurant growth.
How cities can foster food trucks
Some claim that a city’s embrace of entrepreneurs can be seen in the way it treats its mobile food vendors. Here are a few ways cities can make life easier for food trucks and the people who operate them.
1. Create a single entity to govern food trucks.
Citing a 2018 survey it commissioned, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation estimates that food truck drivers spend an average of 37 business days each year dealing with regulations. This can include securing approvals from a plethora of different city, county and state departments, such as those overseeing health, consumer affairs, sanitation and fire safety. Sometimes the costs are prohibitive: in Boston, permits can cost upwards of $17,000.
What’s more, a truck that does business across city or county lines might have to deal with completely different regulations on either side.
2. Remove caps on the number of permits available.
In New York, there are only a few thousand mobile food vendor permits in circulation, which can be renewed indefinitely for $200 every two years. License holders can rent these permits out to actual vendors at annual rates of $20,000 or more. The city council considered raising the cap to nearly double the current total in 2017, but tabled the measure after receiving blowback from real estate and business interests.
3. Eliminate distance minimums.
Food trucks’ vitality depends on foot traffic, and foot traffic is highest in dense areas—which, not coincidentally, are the areas where you’ll find a lot of restaurants. So that the popular spots won’t be overrun with options, several cities, including Boston and Washington, D.C., hold lotteries for certain areas, ensuring a good rotation of options in central locations throughout the week. And we’re waiting to see how the Illinois Supreme Court rules on a challenge to Chicago’s minimum requirements, which has been wending its way through the legal system for nearly seven years.
4. Place restrictions on par with restaurants.
Food trucks should be treated as restaurants on wheels—and given the same freedom to operate as their brick-and-mortar cousins. At present, several cities require food trucks to move after a certain number of hours, or restrict the hours in which they can operate, both of which are bad for business (not to mention often disappointing to customers).
Perhaps the most crucial takeaway is that food trucks should not be viewed as competitors of restaurants. Sure, they are both places people can go to grab a bite to eat, but they serve different functions: one is great for sitting down and relaxing, while the other is perfect for a quick grab-and-get-back-to-the-office type of meal. There is plenty of room for both options, and local governments should do all they can to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit driving those citizens who are hungry enough to start their own ventures.