Food Trucks

It looks like food truck owners are about to get what they’ve wanted for years—the ability to cook meals in their trucks. But that doesn’t mean truck owners are happy about the proposed ordinance that will be voted on by City Council on Wednesday, upset over the additional restrictions that will come with the ordinance.

Besides letting food be cooked on board, the ordinance would set up designated truck stands in congested areas: Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Near North Side, Near West Side, West Town, and the Loop. Each neighborhood will have room for 10 trucks, which can park for free for up to two hours each.

Trucks will also have to carry GPS trackers, and would be allowed to operate until 2:00 am. The law would still require trucks to stay 200 feet away from restaurants.

There are few similarities among food truck regulations in the country’s largest cities, although Chicago is the last one to allow cooking on trucks. San Antonio keeps trucks 300 feet away from restaurants, but lets trucks come closer if they get permission from the restaurant owners. Los Angeles only requires trucks stay within 200 feet of county-approved restrooms.

New York City has a complex system, generally keeping trucks 20 feet from any public entrance to a building, including restaurants, with exceptions for schools, public markets, and subways.

Chicago Tonight spoke with David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association, to learn more about how food trucks co-exist with restaurants in other cities. Weber is also the co-founder of Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, which operates both a traditional restaurant and a food truck.

What is the relationship between food trucks and restaurants like in New York City?

About 30 percent of food trucks in New York are associated with brick-and-mortar restaurants. It changes the tenor—it’s no longer us versus them. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to serve guests as best we can. And we understand guests have preferences. One day they feel like burgers, one day they like pizzas. If you’re a burger restaurant, you can’t be sad if they like pizzas one day, because you’ll know they’ll come around.

One of the big debates in Chicago is whether food trucks and restaurants are going after the same customers. Some food truck owners say they’re largely competing with fast casual places, like Subway or Chipotle, while restaurant owners say they’re going after the same market.

The reality is everything is competition when it comes to food. Drug stores sell prepackaged food to go, grocery stores have grab-and-go salad counters. There’s so much food available from so many outlets, that you can’t view it as trucks versus restaurants. Everyone’s participating in lunch these days. Our economy is built around choices for customers, and some days food trucks are big winners—when it’s sunny and mild and beautiful outside. If it starts raining, then it’s a great day for a brick and mortar restaurant.

Restaurants are arguing that they pay far more in property taxes in lucrative areas, while trucks pay a relatively small licensing fee and can cater to the same customers. You run both a food truck and a restaurant. How do the prices compare?

In my experience, the cost structures are extremely similar. The two biggest expenses in any restaurant or mobile food concept are going to be the cost of food itself, and the labor. That’s around 60 percent of the revenue. There’s additional operational costs, and then there’s rent. Rent is usually around 10 percent in Manhattan. I think mobile food operators, while they aren’t paying rent, they’re paying commissary fees and a much higher utility cost—it’s about 10 times as expensive per kilowatt-hour to use a diesel generator versus ConEd. There’s parking tickets, and tolls, so all in, the cost structure is roughly the same.

The key problem in most cities is how to regulate congested business districts. Based on the 200-feet restriction, it seems most of Chicago’s downtown area would be off-limits, except for the designated food truck zones. What have been some of the most effective regulations you’ve seen?

Someplace like Boston has done a really great job of controlling locations. They move trucks through known locations, so everyone knows where trucks will be at any given time, and the city showcases them. What’s hard is the surprise—all of a sudden there’s a food truck outside your restaurant—especially if the food types overlap. Having a system to manage that is prudent.

The head of the Illinois Food Truck Association suggested she might agree to an additional licensing fee that would allow trucks to come downtown. Has that been tried in New York?

We’re working towards finding a way to price locations from a rational perspective, because it doesn’t make sense that you have a fixed fee and can go to the busiest locations. If everyone can go everywhere, everyone wants to go to Times Square, which can’t support that.

So how do you encourage people to spread out? When everyone had a hot dog cart, everyone knew how to spread out. But now that everything’s different, you have dumplings, I have tamales, and he has burgers, we’re crowing each other again. I believe street vending is a privilege, not a right, and should be extended with rational constraints. There is a good argument that food trucks should be paying their share. One of the ideas here in New York would be curating a network of locations for food truck parking, setting aside these spaces in collaboration with the local community boards, to find locations that make sense on the micro level.

That sounds a lot like the designated food truck zones that Chicago wants to set up.

The next part is the dangerous part—there needs to be a mechanism to allocate those spots, and having some sort of lottery, or reservation system, or price associated with them would make sense. In my imagination, I always think about a giant Zipcar reservation system, where you can book everything a month ahead of time, and everyone knows where you’ll be.