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Food Truck Feeding Frenzy: Making Sense of Mobile Food Vending

Link: Slides from the APA Conference Presentation by Rod Arroyo

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 (www.socalmfva.com). 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 (www.nyc.gov/greencarts).

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.


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