Keep on truckin'

by Joel Crews
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After working in restaurant management for the better part of a decade, I concluded that if I were to ever open an eatery of my own, it would have to be based on simplicity and all about the food rather than the peripheral elements that are inherent in most foodservice concepts. Too often, it’s not enough to serve delicious, memorable food on a consistent basis.

To my chagrin, a few thousand foodservice-minded entrepreneurs in cities around the country beat me to the punch. The food-truck craze has mushroomed from a niche of low-profile mobile peddlers catering to construction workers in the nation’s metropolitan areas to loud, proud, vendors of sophisticated cuisine with global menus and technology-centric business plans. But what seemed like a simple idea has become controversial and complicated. Totaling an estimated $5 billion in sales, the food-truck segment still only represents a tiny fraction of foodservice revenues and is far from a threat to traditional restaurant chains and independent operators. Some chains have even embraced the oncept. San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc., for example, rolled out its hightech ‘Jack’s Munchie Mobile’ truck earlier this year in Southern California to the joy of its legions of loyal customers.

But don’t think all the players in the truggling foodservice segment are so quick to get on board. Most traditional operators are all too aware of their four-wheeled, Twittering, Facebooking counterparts’ growing presence in their collective rear-view mirrors. To protect their brick-andmortar restaurant constituencies, many cities have implemented legal speed bumps to make business challenging for food-truck operators. Not allowing the trucks within 1,000 feet of traditional restaurants and restricting street parking are among the infractions local police departments in big food-truck cities (including Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta and Chicago) are issuing citations over, in what began as a simple idea to offer something new.

On the other side of the curb, standing up for the interest of foodtruck operators is The Institute for Justice (IJ), calling itself a “libertarian public-interest law firm.” Earlier this year, the group announced its National Street Vending Initiative, first in Texas and later in several other states known to be foes of food trucks and other street vendors.

In its “Streets of Dreams,” report, a review of vending regulations in the 50 biggest US cities, IJ states: “With the booming popularity of food trucks…interest in street selling is perhaps greater than ever. Nonetheless, complicated webs of regulations in cities nationwide tie up would-be vendors, making it needlessly difficult or even impossible to set up shop in many cities.”

Now that a line has been drawn (on the pavement) between the two sides, more behind-the-scenes grappling will likely continue. Hopefully though, the dining public will be allowed to make the decision on whether the proliferation of food trucks should be allowed to continue. On the surface, what seemed to be a simple idea has morphed into a turf war. Taking a back seat in all of this are the next generation of diners whose appetites can’t always be satiated within four walls and from a fold-out, four-color menu. Avoiding a head-on collision between these foodservice factions is in everyone’s best interest.
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