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Food Trucks

The Geography and Economics of Food Trucks

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Food Truck

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse serves Gumbo from a food truck at Greeley Square Park in New York City.

Getty Images North America
In the last century, street food vendors have helped comprise the colorful urban fabric of cities worldwide. Often in the form of stalls or carts, street food is incredibly diverse around the globe, reflecting unique regional cuisine and culture. Moreover, in many countries, it is the most convenient, inexpensive food option available. According to an estimate by the Food and Agricultural Organization, 2.5 billion people worldwide eat on the street every day.

In cities like New York, street food has long been an immigrant occupation that catered to blue- collar workers on their lunch break. Today, modern food trucks have emerged as a distinct culinary sensation. In many cities in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, food trucks have surged in popularity in the past decade. They distinguish themselves with gourmet, highly specialized food, acting as a miniature restaurant on wheels, offering fare such as Korean barbeque, gourmet cupcakes, or inventive ethnic-fusion food.

The trend of food trucks has caught on with the aid of modern technology and social media. Consumers can often easily track locations of popular food trucks, leading to loyal devotees of these hot-spot destinations that aren't tied to a permanent address. Now, brick-and-mortar restaurants often compete with food trucks as the most coveted food destinations, especially for the young and hip.

A Changing Landscape of Street Food

Unlike fixed-site restaurants, food trucks can go to where their customers are, so they are most often found in places where a large number of people gather or pass through. As such, food trucks are largely an urban phenomenon. The majority of America's top rated food trucks are located in large metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. However, they have also found niches in some non-urban locations that still offer foot traffic: for instance, college campuses, farmer's markets, or local fairs.

Food trucks are most often run by independent entrepreneurs and chefs, and this independence, mobility, and lower overhead cost, allows for some freedoms that traditional restaurants do not experience. Still, food trucks face extremely localized codes, fees, and laws that dictate how and where they operate. In cities, specific streets and locations are off limits. Furthermore, as a vehicle and a food service establishment, food trucks are also subject to permit and health code restrictions. Additionally, they have to pay many fees associated with any small business: licensing fees, insurance, and taxes.

With an increased presence of food trucks, and oftentimes multiple trucks on the same street, there can be heightened tension with law enforcement, other vendors, as well as restaurants in the vicinity of the vendors. Traditional street vendors and food trucks can find themselves in a legal gray area, risking steep fines as well as crackdowns to clear them out. Many cities also limit permits available to food trucks, so instead of enduring a long wait, hopeful food truck entrepreneurs often turn to a thriving black market where vendors purchase permits at exorbitant prices. Some cities have come up with alternate solutions to find locations for food trucks that please all parties. There are now food truck-markets, which act as an outdoor cafeteria, in which food trucks operate in a designated area. In Portland, Oregon, a city with one of the most thriving food truck communities, private parking lots rent out space to food trucks.

Benefits and Criticisms

The shift in focus from vendors offering working-class fare to gourmet food items has drawn some criticisms. Food trucks have been deemed as "elite," catering only to a specific demographic, while disowning the blue-collar tradition of street food. Traditional street vendors, largely immigrants, are largely excluded from this new street food market, so there are inextricable class issues involved. Some critics have deemed food trucks as a type of gentrification that isn't spatially bound.

Nonetheless, there are still many advocates of the current food truck trend. Food trucks support local entrepreneurship, and also frequently offer locally sourced food. They can be a venue for young or established chefs to have more independent, creative control over the food that they offer. They are often associated with the current "local food movement," advocating that people purchase locally grown and produced food with sustainability in mind.

Food trucks can also meet some unique community needs that traditional restaurants, or street vendors, cannot. After the October 2012 Hurricane Sandy in New York, food trucks aided in the disaster-relief process, giving out over 100,000 free meals in neighborhoods where other restaurants were still closed. As food distributors that are health-inspected, equipped, and mobile, cities can utilize food trucks to provide community services in times of need.

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