Truck You: The Travails of Mobile Food Vendors

By Sam Lewis |

Waffles and Dinges is one of the many popular foods truck based in New York City. They use twitter and Facebook to update customers on their location. Flick/Tasayu Tasnaphun

It’s a familiar site in Midtown Manhattan: harried and hungry bankers, ad execs and all other manner of office workers, seeking an alternative to the typical deli meal, line up outside their favorite mobile lunch spot.

Until one sad day, the spot is empty.

While consumers are hot on food trucks, law enforcement is hot on their tails — with tickets and tows. Now, Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to enlist these four-wheeled eateries in the same grading system used for the city’s restaurants. Health officials are not opposed to the idea, but said it might be difficult to track down the city’s mobile food vendors.

Meals on wheels…But who knows for how long? New Yorkers have been selling food on the street since the first wave of immigrants flocked to the Lower East Side more than a century ago.  But “tricked out” trucks that serve gourmet meals and tweet their whereabouts to hungry followers are a relatively new way to satiate New York’s appetite for street food. (Check out New York Magazine’s top 25 food trucks).

Greenz on Wheelz food truck chef Javier Mendez reacting to the heat as he grills a sandwich in Los Angeles. Last year the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors started requiring food trucks to submit to the same A-B-C letter grading system that restaurants do. Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes to expand a similar grading system to mobile vendors in New York. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

The problem is that the myriad regulations and licensing restrictions governing mobile food vendors makes it difficult to do business. The vendors are barred from large swaths of the city (see the full list here), and the Health Department limits permits to about 3,000. The waiting list for them can run up to 10 years. The city’s cap has forced some mobile vendors to rent, borrow or even obtain a permit on the black market, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Food trucks are under even more pressure now after a court decision made it illegal for them to set up shop in metered parking spots. Some vendors said they spend so many years cultivating customers in one location that moving to a new spot is a huge blow to business.

So will New York’s food trucks be homeless?

Power in Numbers: Food truck vendors have banded together to form the New York City Food Truck Association, which represents 37 drivers. The group recently made a deal with the Rockrose Development Corporation to open the city’s first designated area for food truck vendors on private property, where five food trucks will have a permanent home in a parking lot in Long Island City, Queens. Vendors will include Rickshaw Dumpling, the Treats Truck and Frites ‘N Meats, among others, according to the New York Times.

Food trucks vendors have also found an ally in the city’s parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, who has reportedly been eagerly recruiting high-end food trucks to provide diverse and high-quality concessions in the city’s parks.

Food truck drivers recently told DNAinfo that what’s really needed is, “a real solution that balances the needs of the growing industry with building owners and other local businesses who often see the trucks as competition.”

Can New York learn from its food-truck breeding brethren? Here’s how other cities are dealing:

  • Los Angeles: The food truck craze is believed to have started on the west coast.  In this car-centric city, vendors are free to operate on public streets, including in metered spots. Some have also made partnerships with private property owners. Mobile food vendors are also rated on the same letter-grading system as regular restaurants. However, local restaurant owners have argued that the movement has grown too large and poses a threat to brick-and-mortar businesses. The city is currently considering a new set of regulations that would increase fines on drivers who do not carry valid health and safety permits or who park within 200 feet of a city park or within 500 feet of a school.
  • Boston: Last month, Mayor Thomas M. Menino announced that food trucks were ready to serve “wicked good food” on Boston’s streets with 15 new permit locations in several neighborhoods. The new venture is part of the mayor’s Healthy Food Initiative; vendors interested in applying for a permit are required to offer a specific amount of vegetables, fruits and whole grained food options. Menino has managed to coordinate with several other city agencies to develop a single application process for obtaining a food truck permit.
  • Portland: Food truck vendors rent out spaces in private parking spots, where they offer seating and can operate in the same location for hours at a time.
  • Baltimore: In June, Baltimore’s City Hall created parking zones for food trucks and lifted parking restrictions in its downtown district. But the city’s food truck policies are currently being reviewed so the era of open access to city streets many not last past the end of the year, The Baltimore Sun reported.
  • Seattle: The City Council passed a bill in July allowing food trucks to operate from the street, instead of being limited to private lots. Under the proposal, food trucks are required to pay $2.25 per hour to sell from a parking spot — but they can only operate four hours per week and they have to be at least 50 feet from another food-service operation and at least 1,000 feet away from schools, The Seattle Times reported.
  • Detroit: Last week, the first (legal) food truck opened up shop in downtown Detroit, Crain’s Detroit Business reported. It took the owners of  El Guapo Fresh Mexican Grill nearly 60 visits to City Hall just to secure a six month, temporary permit. So unless you want to sell hot dogs, soda, popcorn or ice cream, don’t bother opening up a food truck in the motor city. Oh and make sure if it’s at least 100 feet away from a restaurant selling the same product. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, the ordinances governing mobile food vending date back to the ’40s.