Food Truck Feeding Frenzy: Making Sense of Mobile Food Vending

Food Truck Feeding Frenzy: Making Sense of Mobile Food Vending

Food Truck Feeding Frenzy: Making Sense of Mobile Food Vending

Recent economic and cultural trends show an explosion in the popularity of food trucks, or mobile vendors, over the past several years. According to research done by Emergent for the National Restaurant Association, the growth of mobile food trucks will soar in the next five years, generating up to $2.7 billion in revenue nationally by 2017—up from $650 million in 2012 (Emergent Research 2012). All across the country, cities, small towns, and suburbs are seeing food trucks popping up, some in unexpected places like office and industrial parks, where zoning ordinances typically preclude restaurants. Amplifying the push for food trucks are the twin trends of “buying local” and “food-as-entertainment” that are enhanced by programs such as the Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network. While ice cream trucks and job-site lunch wagons haven’t disappeared, they are increasingly being joined by gourmet trucks and trucks specializing in ethnic offerings.

All across the United States, people are exploring how mobile food vending might make a difference in their lives and their communities. More resources are starting to become available for potential business owners. Networks for mobile food vendors are growing; the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association was formed in 2010 as one of the first associations dedicated to helping vendors break down barriers to business ( And, in Fall 2013, Roam — a first ever industry conference for mobile food suppliers and owners— took place in Portland, Oregon.

What Is Mobile Food Vending?

Regulatory codes for many communities recognize transient merchants—those goods and services provided by a traveling vendor. The typical ice cream truck would be a good example of a transient merchant who is mobile most of the time, stopping only when requested, and even then for a few short minutes. Many of today’s food trucks or carts, however, are seeking more than a few minutes on the street, sidewalk, or parking lot, staying in place for a few hours to service breakfast, lunch, or dinner. In fact, when located on private property, some food trucks may be in one location for days, weeks, or even months. It is important to make a distinction between the food vendors that are more transient in nature, like an ice cream truck, and those who seek to move about less frequently. Both types of uses can offer benefits to the community, and they will each have different potential issues to regulate.

Many mobile food vendors utilize self-driven vehicles that permit easy relocation throughout the community. However, mobile food vending also includes trailers, food kiosks, and food carts. Food kiosks are temporary stands or booths that are typically intended to sell prepared foods, including ice cream, pretzels, and the like. Food kiosks may be found inside a large office building or shopping mall, but may be secured for outside use. Some communities, like Maui County, Hawaii, allow a variety of products to be sold at a kiosk, provided certain standards are met. While temporary in structure, food kiosks are often stationary with a defined location. Food carts allow the vendor to sell from outside the portable unit and are often used to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Typically, the food in kiosks and carts is prepared elsewhere and kept cold or hot in the unit. The City of New York encourages “green carts” that offer fresh produce in certain areas of the city and has special regulations for these uses (

In communities across the U.S., mobile food vendors are seeking permits to start these innovative businesses. They often run into roadblocks at city hall, because while many zoning ordinances include provisions for temporary uses, most do not contain current definitions for mobile food vending nor do they include any standards that specifically relate to vending and the issues that may arise. The net result in many communities, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is a prohibition on mobile food vending.

The Pros and Cons of Mobile Food Vending

Over the past few years, most of the economy has been struggling, and the workforce has been challenged to adapt. With laid-off workers trying to reinvent themselves and new immigrants looking for opportunities, the number of people starting new businesses is rising. Mobile food vending seems, for some, like a low-cost way to wade into the pool of business ownership. There are a number of reasons why communities may elect to sanction mobile food vending:

  • It provides an opportunity to increase jobs and businesses. The cost of starting a food truck business can start at $25,000, where a traditional bricks-mortar establishment may start at $300,000, according to research by Intuit for the National Restaurant Association.
  • It offers opportunities to provide food choices where zoning precludes restaurants. Traditional zoning codes tend to restrict the uses permitted in office and industrial districts, only allowing uses that narrowly meet the intent of those districts. Office and industrial parks, in particular, are often isolated from the rest of the community, requiring employees to make vehicular trips to retail and restaurant areas. In addition, some communities may not enjoy a variety of healthy, fresh foods, and may encourage such food vendors in certain neighborhoods by relaxing requirements. New York’s green carts initiative allows additional permits to be issued over the city’s defined limit to mobile food vendors that offer fresh produce in underserved neighborhoods, and Kansas City, Missouri, offers reduced permit fees for mobile food vendors in city parks that meet certain nutritional standards (Parks and Recreation Vending Policy 4.7.08).
  • It can increase activity in struggling business districts by creating a dynamic environment where people gather around the availability of new and fresh food. The economy has taken a toll on businesses over the past several years. Those that are hanging on in some areas find that their neighboring buildings or businesses are vacant. Food trucks can be a way to enliven an area, generating traffic for existing businesses and possibly spinning off new business activity. The restaurant industry is evolving to meet the demands of patrons who are looking for locally grown, sustainable, healthy, and fast options for dining. When food trucks use social media to communicate about their location schedules, it can build up a certain level of excitement and anticipation that can make a positive social impact. In addition, the rising trend of “cart-pods” and “food truck rallies” brings multiple mobile food vendors to one location, creating a festive atmosphere in an area for a short time.
  • They signal to other potential businesses that the community is adapting to the evolving economy and supporting entrepreneurship. Mobile food trucks are a new way of doing business; in these early years, communities that anticipate the demand from businesses and consumers may also find that this flexibility signals receptivity to new business models.
  • They are a way for restaurateurs to test the local market for future bricks-and-mortar facilities. Mobile food trucks offer opportunities to interact with a potential market, to test recipes, pricing, and see if the restaurant is a fit with the community. All across the U.S., there are examples of food truck businesses evolving into permanent establishments, including El Camion (“the truck”) in northwest Seattle that has recently opened a restaurant and bar in the Ballard neighborhood after several years of experience with its two mobile food units. Torchy’s Tacos in Austin, Texas, started with a food truck and now has eight bricks-and-mortar restaurants in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston—and two more opening this year. The Lunch Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan is due to open its bricks-and-mortar location soon, using social media to solicit fans of its existing “Mark’s Carts” to become investors in the restaurant.

Along with these potential benefits can come community impacts and possible conflicts. Some of the challenges associated with mobile food trucks might include problems with maintenance, trash, parking, noise, and vehicular and pedestrian circulation. In addition, some restaurateurs may be threatened by this new competition and may try to prevent mobile food vending. Food trucks also have their own operational challenges, including dealing with unpredictable weather and maintaining an appropriate inventory, given limited storage.

The best way to understand and manage the pros and cons of food trucks in individual communities is to solicit public input and dialog about the needs and wants of the community. For example, Longmont, Colorado, went through an extensive research and public input process, surveying their local chamber of commerce and meeting with prospective mobile food vendors, resident groups, and restaurant owners. Their resulting ordinance language responds to the needs and concerns of the community.

Addressing Areas of Concern Through Zoning

Many communities are updating their codes to accommodate or regulate mobile vending. While specific approaches vary from place to place, communities interested in adding or updating regulations for mobile food vending should start by defining the uses and then consider each of the following questions:

  • Where in the community should such uses be permitted?
  • How long should a food truck be permitted in one location?
  • Are these mobile units just for food, or can other goods be sold as well?
  • Does the community want to increase activity?
  • How can the zoning ordinance address upkeep and maintenance?
  • When can food trucks operate?
  • How are customer parking and circulation accommodated?
  • How are these uses reviewed and permitted?
  • What do vendors and their customers want or need?
  • How is signage for the mobile unit regulated?
  • How is the site lit to ensure safety?

If food trucks and similar mobile vending activities are a desirable use in a community and regulations are adopted to permit mobile vending, it is important that restrictions and regulations be narrowly tailored so that they do not have the unintended consequence of excluding the use.  For example, if a food truck is required to be no closer than 300 feet from a bricks and mortar restaurant, it may effectively exclude the use in most of the downtown core.

For more information, Rod Arroyo and Jill Bahm authored a Zoning Practice issue on this topic for the American Planning Association (September 2013 – Vol. 30, No.9).  Rod Arroyo will also be speaking on this topic on April 27, 2014 at the National Planning Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

Royal Oak Farmers Market Food Truck Rally - Zoning

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Better Zoning Using Innovative Formats and Place-based Regulations

Municipalities can improve customer service and enhance placemaking by giving zoning ordinances a tune-up

Zoning codes have come under fire over the last 25 years for many reasons ranging from the resulting development patterns they create (mandating sprawl) to the confusing language (legalese) used in these documents.   This can lead to a host of negative impacts for a municipality.  Some impact day-to-day operations and others last for generations to come.


Successful downtown facade and streetscape

The sprawl issue has been partially addressed through the use of form-based codes (FBC) – a method to regulate development to achieve a specific form.  These codes are prescriptive in nature, leading to specific requirements that help build walkable urban places.  For example, instead of specifying a minimum setback requirement for buildings, a build-to line or build-to zone is established that requires the front of the building to be close to the public sidewalk.  FBC will also address building fenestration so that adequately sized and proportioned windows are properly placed to encourage the interaction of the private realm (the building) with the public realm (the sidewalk and street).  If a pedestrian looks through a window and sees merchandise displays, dining or entertainment, there is a reason stop and look and also to keep walking in search of more of the same type of experience.  If there are blank walls or boring office spaces, they will likely turn around.

If zoning code language is improved through enhancing standard (Euclidean) zoning districts or form-based code regulations, it still may be confusing if the format of the zoning code is not updated. Zoning codes can be enhanced by better graphics, formatting, and hyperlinking.

Zoning Ordinance Graphics

Color graphics can improve zoning codes

The use of graphics is one of the first places to start.  Regulations that are depicted graphically are generally easier to understand and more effective.  This is particularly true for business owners and citizens that are not familiar with common zoning and development terms.  It can also assist staff and Planning Commission members developing a better understanding of what the zoning text is intended to accomplish.

The formatting of most zoning codes has not changed since the time they were first adopted.  The outline structure is often confusing, and users are forced to jump from section to section just to find basic information.  For example, the lists of permitted and special land uses are often found within the district pages.  The building setback, height, and other bulk and density requirements are often found in a separate schedule of regulations.  This basic information can be accessed at a glance by combining it on a single or two-page spread.

This 2-page spread has both use and development regulations

This 2-page spread has basic information about setbacks, height, and land uses.

Changes in technology also make it possible to get answers to basic questions much faster.   People do it every day when they search the internet and click on hyperlinks.  This same approach works well for zoning codes.  The two-page district spread to the right includes words and terms in blue text.  In the actual zoning code, these terms are hyperlinked to another section or another web site.  One click can take a user right to the parking requirements or setback regulations.  This makes the code user-friendly and it is also word searchable.

For more information on improving zoning ordinances through better formatting, graphics, and other enhancements, contact Clearzoning, Inc. at To view a sample Clearzoning code, visit or


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Project Tango – New Google Device Creates 3D Maps

Google 3D mapping provides urban planning possibilities

Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP) program called Project Tango now has a new mobile device that tracks 3D motion and maps user environments.  The current prototype is a 5” phone that tracks the full 3D motion of the device, while simultaneously creating a map of the surrounding environment.  The end result is a 3D model of the space around you.

According to Google’s web site for this project, here are some of the possibilities:

What if you could capture the dimensions of your home simply by walking around with your phone before you went furniture shopping? What if directions to a new location didn’t stop at the street address? What if you never again found yourself lost in a new building? What if the visually-impaired could navigate unassisted in unfamiliar indoor places? What if you could search for a product and see where the exact shelf is located in a super-store?

For planners, a trip to a benchmark development – e.g., successful downtown, new sports stadium, etc. – would result in a 3D model that could be shared with others.  The magic of the place could then be more effectively understood by people that have never been there.  The possibilities for application across multiple platforms are endless.

Here is a link to the Google site:


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Overlay Zoning – A Zoning Tool for Implementing Plans and Policies

Use of zoning overlay districts can be innovative ordinance tool for cities

Overlay Districts are in many ways like any zoning district – they provide development regulations within a specified boundary. These districts are special zones that lie on top of existing zoning districts to modify the underlying district requirements. An overlay zone may or may not match the boundaries of an underlying zoning district.

Overlay zones typically provide a higher level of regulation (more restrictive) than the existing zoning classification, but they can also permit exceptions or be less restrictive.  In cases where conflicting standards are given by an overlay district and the underlying zoning category, those of the overlay district typically control.

Overlay Zoning - City Zoning Techniques - Graphic

Overlay Zoning Concept

Overlay districts are used to accomplish a variety of goals.  They are usually prompted by recommendations or policies in a community’s master plan or a special study.  Examples of goals related to overlay regulations include water quality protection, traffic safety / access management, appearance standards, signs, historic preservation, building height, and land use.  For example, an overlay district may permit greater building height or additional land uses if certain conditions are met.

Basic Steps to Create a New Overlay District

  1.  Establish a policy framework through a planning study or master plan update.
  2.  Spatially define the area of the overlay district. What is the basis for the boundaries?
  3. Consider whether the same policy framework could be achieved through amendment to a zoning district or a new district.
  4. Review and answer these important questions:   How will the new standards guide development in a way that reflects the vision and/or policy?  What will the overlay district regulate and how is it different from the underlying zoning?  Will regulations be more restrictive, less restrictive or some of both? Will the overlay district be mandatory or optional?
  5. Determine the approval process.
  6. Prepare and adopt amendments.
  7. Prepare and approve applications forms and procedures.

 Common Questions

Can two or more overlay districts affect a single parcel?

Yes, it is possible to have more than one overlay district impact a single parcel.  A flood protection overlay and a corridor overlay could both impact one or more parcels.

Does an overlay district require developments to receive special approval?

It depends on the goals of the ordinance.  It can, for example, allow additional uses by right as an incentive for achieving district goals or – due to the unique goals of the district – it can require special land use or PUD approval in order to receive approval.

What happens when there is a conflict between an overlay district and the underlying zoning district?

In most cases the overlay district controls, but the ordinance needs to specifically address this issue and state which provisions are controlling in the case of a conflict.

As with any regulatory tool, it is important to consult with your local professional planner and local attorney prior to adopting new overlay zoning regulations.

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In the Beginning, there was a Plan….

In the Beginning, there was a Plan….

Troy Building Boom Started with an Innovative Plan

A December 2013 article in Crain’s Detroit highlighted the successful redevelopment taking place in the City of Troy – a building boom – and explored how form-based codes have shaped this new development. Before the new zoning standards, however, there had to be a plan. Indeed, the City of Troy was honored by both the Michigan Association of Planning and the Michigan chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects for its Big Beaver Corridor Study, completed in 2007. It is this plan that created the vision for the boulevard and directed the development of the City’s form-based code.

More Information on the Big Beaver Corridor Study

More Information on the Big Beaver Corridor Study

Back in 2005, the City of Troy recognized that the suburban development patterns that defined the City had reached its peak in terms of commercial development along major corridors, and was headed towards becoming a place with limited development potential for the 21st Century. Specifically, Big Beaver Road, home to international businesses and the most upscale mall in the region, presented a classic example of post-World War II suburban development.  Characterized by a high volume traffic highway and standardized single-use zoning of adjacent properties, it represented the planning philosophy of that era.  It was time for a new approach to development. The City retained the services of Clearzoning, Inc. (then known as Birchler Arroyo Associates), a planning and transportation firm who partnered with the award-winning landscape architecture firm, Grissim Metz Andriese, designer Dave Peterhans, and  market research firm, The Chesapeake Group.

The Planning Team determined that the City envisioned a bold new direction – to create a “world class boulevard” that would not only create a unique identity for the City, but would offer new opportunities for development that would serve existing and future businesses and residents. The process was thorough and broad-based, incorporating planning, landscape architecture, architecture, market research, and public input from residents, business owners, property owners, and design professionals.

Key Concepts of the Big Beaver Corridor Study include:

Big Beaver Corridor Study

The Big Beaver Corridor Study

  • Organize the six-mile corridor into distinct districts.  The plan divides the boulevard into districts, each with a unique character.
  • Develop gateways at key entry points.  Signature architecture, landscaping, and streetscape treatments will create a sense of arrival.
  • Enhance corridor landscaping.  Street trees will serve as a visual axis along the corridor and will buffer sidewalks from travel lanes.
  • Promote foot traffic and walkability.  Increased residential uses, mixed-use development, and density will boost pedestrian activity.
  • Provide a variety of transportation choices and reduce the dominance of the automobile.
  • Transform the corridor into an outdoor museum.  Civic art will be installed at gateways and in public squares.  Iconic footbridges and sleek, elegant street furniture will also function as public art.

The Study included a detailed implementation program that identified action items and responsible parties.  Since completion of this work, the City has revised its zoning code to require the elements envisioned in the plan, and new development activity is now lining the Big Beaver Corridor, filling areas where vacant property and empty, underutilized parking lots once stood.

The situation and challenges that faced the City of Troy and the Big Beaver corridor are similar to those faced by many suburban communities within Michigan and across the nation.  The Big Beaver Corridor Study presents a visionary approach to addressing these challenges and embraces planning concepts that have the potential to create a special place and reignite the development potential of the corridor and the region.  Many of the Study’s concepts could be modeled and adapted to other communities and corridors. Furthermore, it reinforces that long-range community planning can be transformative for both developed and undeveloped property.

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Huntington Woods & Lathrup Village Master Plans Underway

Master Plan Information

Master Plan Information

People move to and stay in a community for many reasons. Some come to an area for its prime location; some for its beautiful neighborhoods; and some come for its community feel. What attracts people to a community – and what keeps them there? How well does a community provide for the needs of its residents and businesses? What can the community do to continue to manage and guide development and redevelopment based on changes that happen inside as well as outside the community’s borders?

Master Plan Information

Master Plan Information

The Planning Commissions in the cities of Huntington Woods and Lathrup Village are asking these questions as they update their Community Master Plans to reflect recent demographic and economic trends. Indeed, both communities have desirable locations in Oakland County, and both are known for their beautiful residential neighborhoods. And, both communities are known for being involved and engaged. Public input in the planning process is crucial to building consensus and buy-in from community stakeholders. Links to the online surveys are available for both communities on their project pages: Huntington Woods and LathrupVillage.

The Planning Commission, with assistance from its planning consultants, Clearzoning, Inc., asks the communities to provide input via surveys that will contribute to building community consensus and strengthening the community’s sense of place.

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David Birchler honored by Michigan Association of Planning for 40 years of membership!

At the Michigan Association of Planning annual conference in Kalamazoo, held in early October, David Birchler was recognized for 40 years of membership. Over the years, Dave has been an involved member of this statewide association, including serving as its treasurer and then president in the late 1980′s. Dave has received many project awards from the organization in the past and was also recognized as its “Outstanding Professional Planner” in 2004.

Congratulations, Dave, and here is to many more years of service!

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