City Governments Going After Food Trucks (And Who’s Behind It)

Various publications have talked about the rise of food trucks for the past few years. Reporters from New York to Los Angeles to Salt Lake City to Indianapolis to Syracuse to Boise have written articles remarking on the increase of these mobile culinary venues in their cities. And their popularity is nothing to shake off either:

In a 2010 survey by Chicago-based food industry research and consulting firm Technomic for American Express, 26 percent of Americans said they had visited a food truck in the last six months, despite the fact that most trucks are concentrated in a few big cities.

Increased popularity means that food trucks are taking in a larger market share of the food industry. In 2009, food trucks brought in $1.2 billion in revenue with that revenue going up 8.4% each year from 2007 to 2012. In 2011, food trucks took in 37% of all the revenue earned through various forms of street vending. And by August 2012, food trucks all over the country collectively saw their revenue go up by 15%. Forbes’ Venkatesh Rao described the increased popularity of food trucks (and farmers’ markets) as “a recession-era mini-boom” in the “local food economy.”

These numbers have gotten large enough that the independent gourmand trucks have looked into franchising — and already existing franchises and chains are looking to break into the market as well. Burger King announced plans to roll out food trucks in New York City back in 2012. Their trucks are now out and about in San Francisco.

Naturally, permanently-stationed “brick and mortar” restaurants are concerned about how food trucks affect their lunch crowds — and their bottom lines. As one quick anecdote, restaurant owner Guy Behunin of Salt Lake City stated that his lunch-driven restaurant lost “between 17 and 30 percent” of profits due to food trucks.

However, rather than compete toe-to-toe with Quick Meal Mobiles, some restaurateurs have appealed to city governments to place strict regulations on food trucks in order to recoup lost revenue. Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and St. Louis are among the many cities enacting laws to crack down on food trucks on behalf of restaurateurs. In Chicago, Amy Le of Duck N Roll food truck was ticketed despite abiding by the city’s regulations:

Three weeks after she launched the business last fall, she received a ticket from local law enforcement for doing business about 150 feet from a wine bar—50 feet within the city’s limit for how close food trucks can park outside of retail food establishments.


Ms. Le says she later had to spend nearly a full day in court to find out what the violation would cost her—about $300—and that she lost an estimated $600 to $700 in sales as a result.


“The 200-foot buffer prohibits me from competing,” says Ms. Le, 32 years old, who also opposes a new rule requiring food trucks to install global-positioning devices so the city can track their whereabouts. “It is a free market. Let the consumers decide when and where they want to eat.”

But Chicago isn’t the only city manipulating the free market in favor of brick and mortar restaurants.

  • In San Francisco, city Supervisor Scott Weiner proposed legislation that would prohibit food trucks that are “owned or operated by a restaurant group with 11 or more locations” from dishing out meals in areas of the city where chain stores are very heavily regulated. The city ended up reaching a compromise, mandating that food trucks cannot operate within 75 feet of a restaurant’s front entrance.
  • In Orlando, FL, food trucks now have to obtain three separate permits in order to operate. The trucks are no longer allowed to do “curbside service,” can only station in paved parking lots, and have to stay out of Orlando’s downtown (unless they obtain a concession license — even more hoops to jump through).
  • But one of the most drastic proposals comes from Buffalo, NY. Restaurateur Tucker Curtin appealed to the city’s Common Council to enact new regulations that include prohibition on food trucks operating anywhere within 100 feet of commercial and residential private buildings without written permission from owners and/or tenants. Curtin is essentially insisting that food trucks do not park anywhere in Buffalo’s city limits.

The common thread in all these proposals, new laws, and new regulations is that they were drafted and enacted due to pressure from restaurant owners in the cities.

These groups of restaurateurs would prefer to stifle organic competition instead of upping their game to keep their share in the market.

One of the beauties of free markets is that it pressures businesses out of stagnation. If sales dip too low, they have to focus on innovation and perfection to regain customers. Those businesses who do not rise to the challenge fall off the map.

On the other hand, the recent swell of successful independently-owned food trucks are one example of free market competition at its finest. With the rise of the epicurean food trucks, these entrepreneurs have transformed the former image of food trucks as unsanitary & low quality.

By offering restaurant-quality food with a much shorter wait, these businesses have grown by giving people what they want.

Lev Ekster, the man behind the CupcakeStop food truck in NYC, put it best:

“These bakeries should focus on making better cupcakes, and not on stamping out the competition,” said Mr. Ekster, who, like many vendors, loudly proclaims his belief in free-market food fights.

Restaurants should focus on making their business better, not using their influence with local government to force out competition.

Correction, 6/13/13: This article states that Amy Le of Duck N Roll was ticketed despite abiding by Chicago’s food truck regulations. Since Amy Le was 150 feet away from the wine bar instead of 200 feet, she was 50 feet closer to the wine bar than the regulation permits. — S.R. Mann