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Food Trucks

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Interesting piece on food trucks in the Times. A couple of thoughts.

1. The complaint from restauranteurs about a loss of business when food trucks pull up is mostly absurd. I say mostly because if a food truck is never there and then is suddenly there one day, it probably does take a bite out of your business for that day. However, that they “hurt the community” is ridiculous–cheap, interesting food where people interact on the streets sounds ideal for community building. I guess if we equate “hurting the community” with “hurting business owners pocketbook” that might make some sense. But I certainly don’t think cities need to go out of their way to protect restaurants from food carts.

2. That said, there is clear need for regulation of food trucks. First, the issue of public health is real. They sound all cool now, but there are serious limitations to what standards you can adhere to in a mobile truck. Everyone loves them now, but the first time they lead to a salmonella outbreak, the resulting hipster public health crisis will be real and nasty. Second, they shouldn’t be allowed to pop up literally anywhere. In business owners’ defense, there is a legitimate concern in knowing who your neighbors are and where they are going to be.

3. My personal gripe with food trucks is the exclusive hipster bullshit that comes with them. If good food should be as universal as possible, the whole idea of insider knowledge of where the food truck is going to be on a given day, knowledge only available on Twitter or whatever new technology comes around that limits access to a small group of people is a bad thing. I hated this about Austin–I could find these food carts but I knew that if my parents were around or if I was poor, I could not.

4. To some extent, the same cooler-than-thou attitude extends to the food itself. The difference in food carts between Portland and Austin is palpable. In Portland, the food cart scene is quite diverse but is dominated by ethnic food purveyors. This makes sense given the food stall cultures of Asia and Latin America. This is also somewhat ironic given the extreme whiteness of Portland and of food cart customers. Austin on the other hand did have some pretty good trucks and stalls (I might particularly point out this Honduran cart with a superb baleada), but there was pretty significant cultural segregation going on among them. The Latino carts were in the Latino part of town with a Latino clientele and the hipster carts were in the hipster parts of town with a hipster clientele. And what do the hipster carts sell? A lot of cupcakes. Snocones. Wraps with rock and roll themes. I know I’m being unfairly bitchy here, but as a former Austin-area resident, this drove me up the wall.

All this said, food trucks have an almost universally positive impact on communities. It has allowed entrepreneurs to create cool small businesses with low overhead, sometimes coming up with interesting foods along the way (the Korean taco phenomenon comes to mind). Just about anything that gets people on the streets and creates as much of a walking culture as possible is good.

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  • Josh

    I hated this about Austin–I could find these food carts but I knew that if my parents were around or if I was poor, I could not.

    Huh? One of the things I’ve noticed about the food carts in Austin is that they tend to have permanent locations; I’m thinking of the empty lot on South Congress, or the space on South First near Barton Springs Road. IME it’s not hard to find them at all.

    • This is true. All of the food trucks here are stationary AFAIK.

      And the taco trucks are everywhere — everywhere — and not in the ‘Latino’ parts of town (unless I suppose that you consider the whole town Latino, which would be fair).

      The ‘hipster’ trucks — of which there are many — include sno-cone and cupcake and some other bullshit as well as some really great food — some ethnic, some noveau-fusion sort of stuff, but also barbecue, &c.

      I am by no means a foot cart afficianado (I like the tacos at my local taqueria better in most cases), but there are at least 5 or 6 parking/empty lots each with 4-12 food carts nearby, and a growing number downtown; all are stationary. I understand that it’s not like that in some other places, but Austin-wise that’s not a fair gripe.

    • Chris

      There are a few well known and highly touted roving food trucks in Austin. I assume he meant these.

    • I don’t know how things have developed in Austin over the last year+ since I’ve been there. But last spring, the big thing, at least with a few popular carts, was to change location every day and you had to follow them on Twitter to know where they’d be. People thought this was so cool and I thought it was really exclusive.

      • It’s till like that. And it is really exclusive, and downright annoying. The peach bbq one is delicious, too.

      • Lindsay Beyerstein

        Do they do this to be exclusive, or is it a practical issue?

        I suspect that if they had dependable parking spots, they’d set up shop in one place, or rotate on a regular schedule.

        • The majority of food carts do have permanent (or long-term anyway) parking spots. I guess it would probably depend on the particular situation as to why a single cart would be moving around. But at the very least, the owners of some of these carts are celebrating the exclusivity aspect of their daily location. And it is a successful marketing strategy, at least for a certain demographic.

      • It sounds more like a cult movie type of thing to me, as a marketing strategy anyway.

  • RepubAnon

    My advice to the restaurants is “since you can’t beat them – join them”. If I had a restaurant, I’d have a food truck as well – great advertising for the sit-down menu, especially if the food truck turns a profit. Imagine a food truck at the nearby farmer’s market handing out cards for the sit-down restaurant…

    Regulations are definitely needed, though – sanitation, food handling, licensing, and other concerns come to mind.

    • seeker6079

      The problem with regulation is not its necessity but its application. There was a very illustrative example in Toronto very recently where efforts to permit more varied food in carts where regulated out of existence: bureaucrat after bureaucrat piling regulation after regulation, new demand after demand, onto the hapless folks who wanted to sell something other than hot dogs. In the end the vendors were facing bills of a quarter-mil-plus just to be in compliance with the mountain of City demands. For a food cart, for god’s sake.

  • Bill Murray

    You seem to have a rather large axe to grind concerning hipsters Erik.

    • Yes. Yes he does.

    • dave

      I hated hipsters before it went mainstream, you know.

      • seeker6079

        ftw

      • I hated hipsters when their first album came out.

        • I hated hipsters on 8-track.

    • Ah, not really. After all, I like a lot of the same things they do. But, to paraphrase the Times profile of Miranda July from this weekend, I wish we could all like these things without the bushy beards and Zooey Deschanel bangs. Rather than be exclusive and ironic about these things we like, shouldn’t we be evangelical and inclusive?

      • Murc

        A properly groomed bushy beard is awesome, dude. You’re missing out.

        (I am not Andrew Sullivan.)

  • newsouthzach

    I’m not sure if it really qualifies as a food cart, because it has a fixed location, but the very existence of Lucky J’s is more than enough to redeem the Austin food cart scene, despite the annoying hipsters.

  • A restaurant with a real kitchen for prep work that sent out a food truck would have real advantage over just-truck operations.

    • Nathan Williams

      One of the local food truck success stories in Boston, Clover, has worked their way up from one truck with a warehouse home base to a restaurant supplying three trucks, in about two years.

  • Alan in SF

    Downtown Portland seems to have more food trucks than people. How is that even possible?

    • West of the Cascades

      The food carts are more interesting than most of us here in Portland, hence why there are more of them than there are of us. We’re cool with that. Recognizing your civic limitations and turning them to strengths is the beginning of civic wisdom (oh, and re: the Times article’s statement that “parking disappears” … we ride our bikes and walk to our food carts).

  • DocAmazing

    Taco trucks are a religion in the Bay Area. We do have a hipster food-truck culture, but the beauty is that the food actually is good, and the trucks show up in a number of places–most recently in Golden Gate Park when the tourist busses showed up.

  • Steve

    I live in the Raleigh-Durham area which is a perfect economic experiment for food trucks. Raleigh currently does not allow any street operation of food carts; they can operate on private property with a short term permit, but even that makes it difficult to operate daily. Durham pretty much has no restriction on food truck operation.

    In Durham your “hipster” food carts seldom operate near restaurants, mostly they hang out near live music clubs and brew pubs that don’t have food. They also show up at things like the farmer’s market or outdoor concerts. During the week they tend to do lunch at businesses that are away from commercial food vendors. Think nondescript office blocks with web developers, programmers and accountants inside. This is great for the workers, as they can find descent food nearby.

    In Raleigh, well for a while Klausie’s pizza had a permit for Big Boss brewery but it ran out. Big Boss is in a warehouse district without any restaurants nearby. Since the permit ran out they have been relegated to only selling in the NC State office park (Centential Campus). There is a change in rule expected this week, which allows operation as long as it is 100ft away from a restaurant, on private property, and no more than 1 truck per 1/4 acre. This probably means no truck “rodeos” for Raleigh, but they can still have them in Durham.

    The hipster food trucks tend to operate in the same places, each taking a different day. So on most days of the week you’ll find something at Fullstream brewery in the evening, or Aerial Center in Morrisville for lunch. You can find your Raleigh-Durham Food truck here: http://twitter.com/#!/list/BottyGuy/food-trucks

    There are also some non-hipster taqueria truck that tend to operate in illegal spots (on the street in Cary/Morrisville). Originally most of these trucks acted as lunch wagons for construction workers at housing developments (I use to bike ride at lunch time inth 2000’s and you would see workers lining up for Adobada, yum). Since the housing crash they’ve taken it to the streets.

    In all the cities in this area food trucks have to have an inspected commercial kitchen for prep work, most share space with a restaurant. Also Durham at least inspects trucks on a regular basis. I’m not sure about the taqueria trucks, some of them may be operating outside the regulations.

    I enjoy the food trucks, however most of the hipster models are not cheap eats. They tend to use good ingredients so a lunch will cost you $7-9. Klausies has a good combo that come in at about $7, and taqueria trucks are a bit less expensive.

    • Anonymous

      The Raleigh paper on the proposed changes.

      “Among the key parts of a policy that will go before the City Council on Tuesday:

      Food trucks must be at least 100 feet from the main entrance or outdoor dining area of any restaurant, and 50 feet from any food cart, such as a hot dog stand.

      No more than one truck is allowed per half-acre, preventing “food courts” that feature rows of food trucks.

      No free-standing signage or loudspeakers. Outdoor seating areas are allowed only on lots two acres or larger.

      “It’s not to where I’m satisfied with it, but they have to do what they think is fair for everybody,” Wills [,local restaurant owner,] said. “I still think it’s an unfair advantage. If they want to cut my taxes to make it equal, I’m all for it.”

      • The rule about outlawing food courts is the worst part of this. It essentially looks to eliminate the communal walking-city aspect of food courts that are one of their greatest values.

        No loudspeakers on the other hand, this is a good thing.

  • Murc

    How the fuck can a food truck be hipster? Can someone answer me that? They’re FOOD TRUCKS. I go regularly to Toronto, not exactly a city devoid of hipsters, and their food trucks are just… food trucks. You buy food from them. Sometimes its awesome and sometimes not.

    • seeker6079

      The idea of having food trucks that are more than just food trucks is currently before the Spontaneity Planning Subcommittee.

  • cpinva

    i’d never have guessed that working in the eatery wasteland that is richmond, va would turn out to be an advantage to my palate? go figure.

    the downtown area boasts two of the largest employers in town: mcv hospital/medical school & the federal building, with 1,000’s of employees, patients & visitors located within 3 city blocks around daily. the fixed eateries are few and far between (they closed the 6th street market down a few years ago), whether fast-food or other. the street vendors fill a definite need, with fixed locations and a reasonable variety of basic ‘murcan to some nice ethnic foods.

    each vendor is required to be licensed by the city, with each cart/truck location noted on the license, they don’t get to go bopping around wherever they please. as well, they are required to be inspected at least annually (absent complaints), i’ve yet to see one that looked cruddy, at least externally. the prices are very reasonable. many are merely extensions of local restaurants, who find it economical to have the cart, but not a sit-down location, due to the almost complete absence of night life downtown.

    funny thing about chicago though, best hot dog i’ve ever had, i got from a street vendor right in front of the field museum, when visiting my brother. i’ve been there on business a few times also, in the downtown area. it seemed as though there was more than sufficient potential customers for both fixed and street vendor eateries.

  • I appreciate people talking about how this is going down in their cities. Very informative. Hopefully, Providence has something like one of these cities.

    • mark f

      Providence? Oh dear. I hope you like bangs and bushy beards . . .

  • Richard

    In Los Angeles, where both ethnic and hipster food trucks really started (we invented the taco truck), there is strict regulation of health standards, same as for restaurants. Many if not most food trucks pay to have the trucks stored overnight at places where they wash them, and ensure compliance with health regulations.

  • JL

    Food trucks have been around for quite some time (years before I started in 2003) on the MIT campus. They show up in the same few places – there’s usually a couple along Mass Ave, and a cluster over by buildings 66/68. They’re largely Mexican, Asian, and Middle Eastern (a lot of people absolutely loved the falafel truck). I don’t recall any snocone-and-cupcake-selling hipster food trucks (I didn’t know those existed until I read this post). The same ones went to the same (publicly accessible, not just accessible to MIT people spaces every day, so there was no particular knowledge needed to find them.

    Just another datapoint for you. I used to wish that more of them were open during dinner time, since I normally couldn’t afford to buy lunch, even for $3-$4.

  • LuckyJimJD

    Philadelphia has enjoyed a thriving food truck culture for many years, free of hipster taint (though perhaps that’s changed since I left in ’04). My personal favorite, regularly parked on JFK Boulevard across from LOVE Park, served very good Middle Eastern food. I wonder if it’s still around?

    • Malaclypse

      David Brenner used to have a stand-up he did on Carson about giving directions in Philly using pretzel carts as landmarks.

  • the resulting hipster public health crisis will be real and nasty

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    • Well, I’m trying to remain relatively neutral on it….

  • Ben F

    Are food trucks pretty much the same thing as food carts?

    In Madison, WI, there are several food carts. There are two main parts of town that are the home of most of them; near the capitol building, and near the UW campus. IMO, the quality ranges from the great to the mediocre. The best one is a cart where I tried Indonesian food for the first time.

    • DocAmazing

      Indonesian food cart in an unlikely location: at the ferry dock on Galiano Island, southern British Columbia. Excellent nasi goreng; even better curry wurst. Worth the trip.

      While in BC, enjoy the taco trucks that have sprung up in Victoria. All the world is one…

  • coriswrasse

    a blogger complaining about people using twitter and calling it hipster bs is hilarious.

  • why is my nebor park a big truck at his house when knows not allowed here like moveing truck only the bigest 6 wheeler they have i too dive truck but don,t bring my truck homewho to talk to or what lawer to get need help fast

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