Urban America: Food Trucks As a Way In

DC's Fojol Food Truck

by Richard Layman | Urban Places & Spaces

DC's Fojol Food Truck

Food trucks are interesting to me for the same reason that public and farmers markets are interesting–they are opportunities for business development, to start up businesses for less than the cost of entry via brick and mortar facilities. They are also spaces of experimentation and innovation, to build concepts, etc.

E.g., some retail businesses in DC, such as the Chateau Animaux pet supplies store on 8th St. SE, have grown out of vendor booths at the flea market that surrounds Eastern Market, DC’s public market. A long time ago, PPS had a report about this, Public Markets as a Vehicle for Social Integration and Upward Mobility.

Food trucks are seen as a good thing in some quarters, for business development and commercial district vitality purposes, such as in DC and in Montgomery County (“Food trucks accelerate pace in Silver Spring” from the Gazette) as initiatives promoted by local government.

Food trucks are seen as a bad thing by some stakeholders. For example, African-American majority community Prince George’s County sees food trucks, typically owned and serving Latinos, as a menace, and have banned the practice (“Vendors Get a Taste of Assertiveness: Aided by Pr. George’s Lawmaker, Immigrants Try to End Food Truck Ban” from the Washington Post, May 2004).

In DC, food trucks are controversial because brick and mortar businesses see them as unreasonable competition (partly there is a problem because food trucks pay very little in sales taxes on transactions, which is something that needs to be rectified).

This is a problem with merchants in Adams-Morgan and on Capitol Hill, among other places. (See the past blog entry, “Business improvement districts and boundary spanning.”) Commercial district promotion organizations such as business improvement districts too often fail to manage the overall image and vitality of a commercial district vis-a-vis the pecuniary interests of brick and mortar businesses.

An editorial in the Boston Globe, “Food trucks: Serving up jobs” is positive, stating that the Clover Food Truck operation has grown from one truck to three, plus a brick and mortar restaurant, and employs 80 people. A similar article ran in the New York Times, “From Food Trucks to Restaurants in New Jersey” and in Los Angeles Weekly, “Komodo Food Truck Opens Restaurant in Kosher Corridor.”

In other communities, restaurants are developing food trucks as another revenue center for their business, leveraging extant operations, and providing new and expanded promotional opportunities.

Today’s Los Angeles Times has some interesting articles, “Food truck makers revived by gourmet trend: The Southern California companies that outfit and customize catering trucks — or lease them out — enjoy a boom as the craze spreads throughout the country.” and “Costs of Having a Food Truck.” The latter article points out that as food trucks have gotten fashionable, they aren’t necessarily cheap, although trucks can be leased for about $4,000/month.

And one article, “Has L.A.’s mobile food scene jumped the shark?,” questions whether food trucks are even cool anymore, demonstrating that yes, LA is usually ahead of the rest of the country in terms of trends. Also see “It’s Over” from the Portlandia TV show.

In any case, I think it’s important for food trucks to be accepted as a method of entry into the food business and into entrepreneurship more generally.