Food trucks have spread across the country like a prairie fire in recent years, bringing new tastes to the adventurous palate. It began as a relatively small phenomenon limited to hipster enclaves such as Portland, parts of L.A., and New York. Now reality TV showcases the trend, and why not? It’s a great story about plucky young entrepreneurs with a vision.
Yet food trucks run into any number of roadblocks. Sure, food safety regulation is vital — nobody wants to get sick from mayo left out in the summer sun. But it’s fair to ask whether every rule out there is completely necessary.
Here are five food truck examples illustrating how our economy is sometimes hamstrung by rules, even those crafted with the best of intentions.
Barriers to entry in Chicago
Chicago approves onboard cooking, but makes it expensive. Opening a business, especially in the food industry, requires significant startup capital. Food trucks are one of the cheaper entry points into the field and often act as a stepping stone to opening a more permanent establishment. The Windy City claims it’s trying to encourage food trucks and moved in 2012 to approve onboard cooking, but the results seem to indicate otherwise. Of the 109 applicants between July 2012 and early 2013, the city didn’t approve a single truck. One requirements truck owners call overly stringent is for gas lines and ventilation, which increase costs by $10,000 to $20,000. The regulations seem poorly thought through: vent stacks are required to be 13 feet tall, too high in fact to clear many of the low bridges in the city.
Protectionism in the Bay Area
San Francisco, Oakland, and others cities limit how close trucks can operate to restaurants. Food trucks create competition for existing restaurants, which shouldn’t be controversial. In a market economy, challenges to an existing business in most sectors promote evolution and differentiation. Brick-and-mortar restaurants can offer a higher level of service than food trucks. Should sidewalk tables be banned just because not all restaurants can offer them? Governments should be wary about picking winners and losers in an economy. But as a report from the Institute of Justice points out, at least 20 major cities around the country — including Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, and Atlanta — ban trucks from selling food within a set distance of established restaurants.
Bureaucracy in the Big Apple
Four agencies regulate food trucks in New York City, a location that was already hosting a vibrant street food community when trucks first hit the roads in the mid-2000s. Sometimes conflicting rules from the Health, Transportation, Sanitation, and Consumer Affairs weaved a labyrinth of regulations that helped spawn a thriving black market in permits, while radically restricting consumer choice. New York City Councilman Dan Garodnick told New York Times’ Adam Davidson that “it’s nearly impossible (even if you fill out the right paperwork) to operate a truck without breaking some law.”
Beach Bans in San Diego
San Diego bans trucks from beaches. Food trucks are essentially kitchens in trucks. Clearly there’s some level of regulation required for both. You want to protect consumers from getting sick, and you want the brakes on the truck to work, but that doesn’t necessarily require a new layer of regulations. If the pizza store on the corner can operate within a certain distance of the school, or pool, or beach, then why can’t the pizza truck? Yet that’s not the approach city officials took in San Diego this month when they voted to ban food trucks from three blocks of prime beach spots in Ocean Beach and parts of Mission Beach.
Localism in New York’s Capital
Too many layers of government around New York’s capital stymie food trucks. While your village board is probably best positioned to determine the local library’s hours, sometimes local regulations can get in the way of business. In the state capital region, a patchwork of rules discourages the industry in an area that would otherwise have been a natural fit. The cluster of Albany, Troy, and Schenectady create a good sized market, with plenty of quality local produce and a relatively strong economy. But the area also encompasses many villages and towns, each with their own regulations and fees. In Albany, for instance, food trucks are basically limited to a single park. While Schenectady is more open, there are limits on how close to existing restaurants trucks can operate. Troy, meanwhile, has a small area for food trucks in the downtown. As a result of this complicated web of rules, vendors find it difficult to operate throughout the entire capital region, opting instead to pick one or two of the counties to focus on — artificially limiting the size of their potential market.