How Can a City Attract More Food Trucks?

Roaming Hunger offers an iPhone app and a Web site to help users find food trucks in the city of their choice.

By Dave Copeland |

Roaming Hunger offers an iPhone app and a Web site to help users find food trucks in the city of their choice.

Call it a product of the recession, with people looking for tasty yet inexpensive lunch options, or marketing-fueled hype courtesy of television shows like Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race: those high-end lunch carts on four wheels are here to stay.

In a study released last month by Technomic, 91 percent of consumers said they see food trucks as having staying power and being more than just a passing trend. Nationally, sales at food trucks have grown in a each of the past five years, including a 7.6 percent rise in 2010, according to Sageworks Inc., which provides financial analysis services for privately-held companies.

“Portland (Ore.) is the food truck haven, and the hallal carts in New York City have a huge following,” said Melinda Crump of Sageworks. “Sales growth began to decline alongside the recession in late 2007, but sales have risen strongly again over the last year and into 2011.”

Permitting rules play more of a role than weather conditions in making a city a “food truck haven.” About 65 to 70 food trucks currently operate in San Francisco as a result of changes to rules that are expected to make it easier to get a truck up and running. That has raised the ire of fixed-place restaurants, who complain the food trucks eat into their business and caused sales declines as high as 20 percent. Hardest hit are fast food restaurants: 54 percent of food truck customers said they would have bought their meal at a quick service restaurant if food trucks were not an option, according to Technomic.

“A major factor of growth for cities where food trucks have taken off revolves around permitting and route to market,” said Ryan Carlin of Roaming Hunger, which has a Web site and mobile phone application to help customers find food truck. “Cities that have been stifled in growth, like Chicago, are limited because it is simply not as easy to get the business up and running.”

What follows is a look at five towns that have developed plans for increasing the number of food trucks on their streets and how they did it:

San Francisco: The city, known for its high-end restaurants and food scene, was able to spark food truck growth by moving oversight from the police department to the department of public works with legislation that passed in 2010. The new rules also allow a family to apply for seven food truck permits as opposed to one under the old rules. The growth is evident: as of the start of this year, San Francisco had about 70 food trucks and more in line for permits, up from just one three years ago. “San Francisco is a great example of a place where mobile food trucks have taken off once the permitting system was restructured to allow for more applicants,” Carlin said.

Portland, Ore.: The city’s bicycle culture and an obsession with supporting local businesses helps fuel demand for cheap eats on the go. There are 461 food trucks and food carts licensed to operate in Portland, up 25 percent from 2008 and proving that you don’t need optimal, year-round weather to have a thriving street food economy. Being an immigrant-friendly community also seems to help: 51 percent of Portland’s food cart operators were born outside the U.S.

Sacramento, Calif.: The city currently has just five high-end food trucks, as well as another 20 selling sandwiches and pre-made food. That, however, is expected to change with legislation that would lift a rule preventing food trucks from parking in one spot for more than 30 minutes. “The 30-minute-per-location rule is, in many ways, a covert ban on the trucks,” said Joshua Lurie-Terrell, who organized a food truck festival in Sacramento that drew 10,000 diners. Lurie-Terrell has also been coordinating discussions between food truck operators, restaurant owners and city council members and the rule changes now have majority support on city council.

Austin, Texas: Tighter regulations passed last year, including rules requiring proof of a state sales tax permit, a fire-department safety inspection and filing an itinerary of truck routes, have not put a damper on what many consider one of the best food truck scenes in the country. Austin officials say they will have licensed 1,620 food trucks by the end of this year, up from 648 in 2006. Austin’s tech-savvy denizens also fuel food truck growth, with apps like Foodspotting designed to help people find the closest, open food truck to their location.

Boston, Mass.: Across the Charles River, Cambridge has a long-standing food truck tradition, most notably on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where time-strapped students and professors feed an industry for cheap, quick and filling food. But in Boston proper, permitting hassles, high licensing costs and burdensome rules about where trucks could park when they were not open made food carts and trucks nearly nonexistent. Mayor Thomas M. Menino changed that by easing the rules for food truck operators that agreed to participate in Boston’s healthy food initiative. The city set up 15 permanent, rotating food truck parking spots in various city neighborhoods and is backing a Web site that will help customers find out where their favorite food truck is headed next. The pilot program started this summer with 15 trucks but more are expected as a result of its early success.