The roach coaches of yesteryear have enjoyed a resurgence. Peddling a wide variety of cuisine, they now form part of most large urban landscapes, but, unlike the earlier versions, modern food trucks are subject to a number of rules and regulations designed to protect consumers, existing food businesses, and truck owners.
Age-old way of selling
The idea of selling food on the street is not new: street carts (and then the later mobile food trucks) are a much more modern manifestation of the Roman version for whom “’Street food’ was … generally enjoyed; with wine, gambling or even prostitutes”. As the concept of mobile selling is age-old, so too is the need to regulate and monitor the activity of mobile vendors. Fast-forward from Roman times to 1691, when the first regulations for street carts were implemented in New York (or, as it was known at that time, New Amsterdam).
As a notable historic fact, in 1936 when the first mobile hotdog cart was rolled out, it was named the Weiner Mobile. Today there are an estimated 4,130 food trucks in the US – it has also been reported that there were 3 million food trucks which would have meant that one in every 14 working Americans would work in a food truck. They do seem to be everywhere, but that’s a bit excessive. On the other hand, the Australian Mobile Food Vendors Group “estimates there are 3000 food trucks in Victoria alone, up from 1500 two years ago”. To understand the scale of the mobile movement will probably take a review of official records; but even that is flawed, as tax returns are for companies, and therefore don’t count the number of individual trucks per company – still, the US figure according to tax filings for the US seem to match the estimated 4000 odd companies (not trucks) and it is surprisingly lower than other parts of the world. This may be due to definitions (or in the case of NZ and Australia the necessity for really, really good coffee within 5 minutes’ walk of most offices). Revenue from food trucks in the US is estimated to have reached $2.7 billion USD in 2017 (although to put this in context the figure for restaurant sales was estimated to reach $799 billion USD).
Go to the consumers
There are a number of advantages for the average foodie entrepreneur in setting up a food truck compared with the more traditional bricks and mortar restaurant and café – for a start, the setup cost is a fraction of that of a restaurant ($50-60,000 USD versus $275,000 USD); you can move to where the consumers are (and, as the leading demographic is millennials (47%) this needs to be close to electric scooter charging posts); and, you can drive straight to the bank with your takings (the average income is more than $290,000 USD). An early food truck in California (and one that is credited with being at the forefront of the modern movement), Kogi Korean BBQ, cleared $2million in revenue in its first year of operation (2008). It is successes such as the Kogi truck that lead to the acceleration in the movement, but that may be slowing down a little now as many point the finger at the regulations and restrictions that the operators have to attend to.
In their investigation of the US Food Truck movement, the US Chamber of Commerce, found that the barriers to entry into the mobile market varied considerably from city to city. For example, in San Francisco there were 32 steps to go through to establish a new vehicle, whilst in Denver, only 10. Getting into the business is not for the impatient: in the US, 45 separate government mandated procedures are required to be completed over the course of 37 business days, and permits cost over $28,000 USD: the average truck meal is sold for around $12 dollars, which means there are 2333 meals that need to be sold before any other costs are recovered (including the cost of actually making the meal, buying the vehicle, hiring and training staff, salaries, etc).
The freedom of being on the road does have a downside, however, as space in good locations is limited and this means that the trucks will often be lining the streets hours before people appear. In wet weather there is nowhere for customers to shelter; cooking facilities are limited to a small galley kitchen that has little storage and preparation facilities, and then there is the drawback of no (or very limited) customer seating. It’s easy to imagine that the all-important-meal-time-Wi-Fi is missing too. Another, obvious, downside is that if the vehicle is not on the road, then burgers aren’t being sold.
The reverse model
With a traditional restaurant a customer base is built – people know where to find a restaurant or café and can be generally certain that it will be in the same location day in and day out. The difficulties of restaurants on wheels is that no-one can be really sure where they are going to be parked – and so, traveling gastronomes need some way of knowing how to track down their favourite taco tout, donut dealer or pizza peddler. It is fortunate that most of us carry mobile food truck tracking devices in our pockets or purses… the evolution of the movement fits well with our dependency upon social media.
And, social media enables us to monitor and report health or sanitary violations. Websites such as Boston Food Truck reviews provides consumers with details of where to find their favourite mobile kitchen as well as recent reviews. This website, however, is limited to the impression of one or two authors, more aggregated responses can be found on sites such as Zagat, Yelp, and Zomato.
From ‘roach coach’ to respectable
Changing gears now for a moment. What is the likelihood of getting sick from food consumed from a food truck? Well, it seems it depends. First up, public health advisors warn that the traditional types of food available at your rolling kitchen are often associated with poor health outcomes (talking about burgers, fries and hotdogs here) and remind us that convenience is not necessarily good for us. However, the variety of food available means that mobile convenience does not necessarily equate to cardiac clogging fare with a wide selection of food types on offered (not just fried) but, with these come various food safety risks. These food safety risks are not different to any traditional kitchen – the proper handling and storing of food, proper preparation and serving of food, staff hygiene etc are not limited to any food facility; there are additional challenges though when the available working space is small, hot water is limited, and bathroom facilities are non-existent. There are also staff health and safety concerns in operating vehicles, cooking in cramped spaces (and again, lack of bathroom facilities).
Where the authorities sit on all of this is (and this seems to be regardless of whether you are in downtown Wellington, NZ or San Francisco, USA), food trucks are expected to perform at a prescribed level that is designed to reduce the risk to consumers (from food related illnesses). This manifests in rules and regulations that are to be followed along with the inspection of facilities by authorities. Unlike brick-and-mortar kitchens, however, there is always the potential that a mobile kitchen can evade inspection and for this reason, the age-old Roman wisdom of caveat emptor (buyer beware) stands.