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A cautionary view on food trucks

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Lloyd Alter takes a (somewhat) contrarian view and asks questions about food trucks:

There are many wonderful things about food trucks. They are a platform for young entrepreneurs to start a business without the costs of a bricks and mortar spot. They follow the crowds can quickly respond to demand in a way that fixed establishments can't.

But with an urbanist hat on, I worry that our first priority should be reinforcing and revitalizing our main streets, to build walkable communities with the resources people need nearby, summer and winter, slow and high season. Hidden behind the food trucks in the photo above are restaurants like Chippys and Caflouti and Noce which have washrooms and other facilities. They mostly use china plates and glasses that are washed and reused. They are there all year, not only when the art show is happening in the park.

Then there is the garbage. Where does it go and who pays for picking it up? The city. The bulk of its street pickup of garbage is already fast food from permanent restaurants, but this just exacerbating it.

Finally, there is the noise and the pollution. Permanent restaurants are hooked up to municipal supplies of electricity and have engineered exhaust hoods that dump the fumes out at rooftop level; Food trucks often have engines running to generate electricity and pump their fumes out virtually at street level.

I enjoy Alter's writings a great deal, but this one strikes me as just a little grumpy. They're loud, they're trashy, they might block the view of a couple of my favorite restaurants. And sure, for every positive there's a potential negative. For my money, I still think food trucks are easily a net positive for cities for a few simple reasons:

  1. The entrepreneurship angle, which we dare not minimize.
  2. They get butts out on the street. Food trucks by nature create social behavior in public. Nearly all of our cities need more of this.
  3. The food/beverage competitors they most compete with are those at the low end, which often are fast-food chains. If I'm in a hurry, I'd rather grab a well-prepared item from a truck or cart than McDonald's. If I have a bit more time and want to sit, I'm more likely to choose somewhere that has good seating, bathrooms,  better food, etc.  

Fundamentally, mobile food serves different markets than most sit-down restaurants. Their rise in popularity is a basic lesson in market segmentation and differentiation. Just because a new service enters a market does not necessarily mean someone else goes away. For example, people howled about Starbucks for years that they would put local coffee stores out of business. As it turns out, that simply wasn't the case. The presence of the big national chain expanded the market for upscale coffee, and local stores found their niches. In simple terms: different businesses served different customers.

Until proven otherwise, why can't we take the same approach to innovation for food trucks? We may find that they actually expand the market for main streets and urbanism by getting more people out on the street. I suspect that in time we'll come to some consensus about common-sense limitations and regulations on mobile food. but the entire point is to lower the barrier to entry for innovation while actually providing something human beings like: good food and socializing. Those two things are always good for cities. Let's have more, please. 

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