The Food Truck Revolution

Food truck at a SMMOA event at the Bergamot Station art center. Credit Gary Kavanagh

By Gary Kavanagh |

Food truck at a SMMOA event at the Bergamot Station art center. Credit Gary Kavanagh

Food trucks, which have always been around in the L.A. area, have blown up in a big way recently. Something I’m sure anyone not living under a rock has become aware of by now. There are more high end options, and they are targeting new areas and demographics with unique food combinations. The long lines and cut throat competition implies many people like the new trucks, but they can also stir up some controversy when competing with business from brick and mortar restaurants. I believe there is something deeper going on here that will far outlive other recent food crazes, with implications concerning the successes and failings of zoning rules and other city policies.

So what does this have to do with sustainability? It may seem counter-intuitive that a gas burning food truck roving around may help any sort of environmental goals, but when they attract local diners who might otherwise drive elsewhere, I believe they can. The food truck hotspots, the places where many trucks concentrate and park regularly, are also quite revealing in highlighting where deficiencies in the zoning and development of the past have created dead zones that were waiting to spring to life with the right activity.

I’ve been watching this food truck revolution take shape first hand every weekend on the small one way street behind my workplace, Pennsylvania Ave. between 26th and Stewart in Santa Monica. Food trucks roll in early to get a space and at lunch the street teems with people coming out of the surrounding creative studio, campus and office spaces to get a bite to eat. What’s been amazing to me in watching all this, is that it was really not all that long ago that the street was almost completely devoid of human activity. You’d see one or two people walking through landscaping on their way to places to eat buried deep inside the Water Gardens or to the further away Bergamot cafe. Usually people would be walking through the office complex landscaping on Pennsylvania, since there are no sidewalks. The street was clearly designed for limited parking lot access for cars and nothing else.

Formally drivers would speed down the short corridor, but things have calmed as pedestrians and drivers mix on more equal footing, with drivers forced to slow down and pay attention. If it weren’t for the palm trees, you might even mistake peak lunch hour for a street scene in a European city where people freely walk in the middle of some slower streets.

So if there is such a huge pent up market demand for more lunch options in that little heavily business office oriented slice of Santa Monica adjacent the Water Gardens Complex, why haven’t more restaurants opened in the area? Understanding why food trucks are so successful, and where they are successful, can reveal clues about what it would take to allow more permanent restaurants to succeed.

The theory I’ve been developing is that this boom in L.A. food trucks is really a creative response to capitalizing on the distortions of where people and services concentrate, created by overly restrictive zoning codes and mono-cultural land use based around automobile use. I believe that these distortions created by decades of prior development are a key component that drive the success of the trucks today by creating vacuums unable to be filled by traditional brick and motor restaurants.

In the case of the Bergamot district, we have a ton of development which concentrates massive amounts of 9-5 and 10-6 office and creative studio workers into one area, and very little else. This has some significant implications for trying to operate a local restaurant.  Such land use creates an enormous market for lunch, and very little demand for any other meal. Leasing a space in Santa Monica, or building something new, are significant investments, but if the investment really only profits for about an hour and a half a day, than it becomes really difficult to operate successfully. This also limits competition, because a fewer number of businesses catering to the area are able to stay afloat and operate.

The other thing to note here, is the demographic of workers in the district, which includes many middle to upper middle class people, in white collar positions or entertainment jobs. According to Ellyn Satte’s hierarchy of food needs, once someone is well off enough to provide enough food, they begin seeking better food, more novel food, more variety, or making deliberate dietary choices. So when you concentrate a huge of influx of people craving food choices in an environment that cannot sustain many permanent restaurants within walking distance, the outcome is a lot of people driving out of the area in search of other places to eat. The food trucks invert this by bringing a variety of food choices into an area.

The migratory nature of the trucks allows them to capitalize on heavy concentrations of people at specific times, and go somewhere else when the market shifts. Past zoning policies have encouraged the separation of different types of uses, so a place that is hopping at lunch, may be dead at night, but trucks can hop between the zones in a way a brick and mortar business obviously cannot.

Some of these competitive advantages have some traditional businesses crying foul. In response, there have been calls for tighter and tighter regulations on the operation of food trucks. However I think the best thing we can do for our brick and mortar restaurants is not to kill the food trucks, but to foster development that allows traditional restaurants to better succeed. That means fostering more mixed use, and loosening zoning requirements that make it difficult to establish new businesses, or discourage the right variety of uses to sustain a customer base throughout the day. Requirements that force the building of automobile oriented development, such as high parking minimum requirements, when some parts of the city really need more pedestrian oriented environments, should be reversed. Parking is incredibly expensive to provide, and since food trucks don’t carry parking lots with them, they can get started with much lower overhead.

After seeing how Pennsylvania Ave. behind my workplace in the Penn Station Building was transformed for the better by the presence of the trucks, I think we should be looking at the opportunities food trucks offer cities. Transitioning toward more vibrant mixed use and walkable development, in places that have already built out as office worker monocultures catering to car commuters, is not going to happen overnight. Food trucks offer a way to transition, to inject a quick fix into areas that lack the right mix of businesses to create a walkable environment, but may have a bunch of parking spaces sitting around.

Now that the LUCE plan has been passed, it is really the beginning of a process that will update various zoning, ordinances and development agreements. If we are to keep to the goal of enabling growth without growing traffic congestion, we would do well to look at where and why food trucks are succeeding as a barometer. An indication of where people are craving new activity and walkable destinations. Not to mention they are a great place to get a bite to eat and try something new.