mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
New York’s War on Food Trucks Rolls On

American city dwellers are flocking to the sidewalks for the fast, delicious food to be found in food trucks. Not surprisingly, city regulators and bureaucracies have been slow to catch up with these rolling kitchens, leading to all kinds of headaches for these small business owners.

The problems in New York City are particularly bad. Food trucks need permits to sell food, which makes sense. You wouldn’t trust just anyone to sell you food out of the back of their car; consumers need to know that vendors have been checked out according to proper health codes. But the New York permitting process is byzantine, inconsistently enforced, and non-transparent—and it’s all of these things in a way that makes it nearly impossible for food trucks to operate. Adam Davidson reports on New York City’s battle for NYT Magazine:

Despite the inherent attractiveness of cute trucks and clever food options, the business stinks. There are numerous (and sometimes conflicting) regulations required by the departments of Health, Sanitation, Transportation and Consumer Affairs. These rules are enforced, with varying consistency, by the New York Police Department. As a result, according to City Councilman Dan Garodnick, it’s nearly impossible (even if you fill out the right paperwork) to operate a truck without breaking some law. Trucks can’t sell food if they’re parked in a metered space . . . or if they’re within 200 feet of a school . . . or within 500 feet of a public market . . . and so on.

Enforcement is erratic. Trucks in Chelsea are rarely bothered, [one food truck operator] said. In Midtown South, where I work and can attest to the desperate need for more lunch options, the N.Y.P.D. has a dedicated team of vendor-busting cops. “One month, we get no tickets,” Thomas DeGeest, the founder of Wafels & Dinges, a popular mobile-food businesses that sells waffles and things, told me. “The next month, we get tickets every day.”

This arbitrary and confusing regulatory environment has the effect, of course, of protecting bricks-and-mortar restaurants from competition. This group has the most to lose from the rise of food trucks; unlike their mobile counterparts, fixed establishments have rents to pay and leases to negotiate. From their perspective, food trucks ought to share in their misery—at least when it comes to dealing with municipal ordinances. Fair is fair, right?

We understand their desire to protect their livelihoods, but this attitude makes for a depressing way to run a city. Instead of making food truck owners as miserable as the proprietors of stationary eateries, why not seize the opportunity to band together and create a friendlier regulatory environment for everyone? Surely there’s room for reforms that will make it easier for undercapitalized entrepreneurs to set up shop without leading to the rat meat scandals plaguing China at the moment.

[Food truck image courtesy of Wikimedia]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Clayton Holbrook

    If brick and mortar restaurants are worried about the competition from mobile food trucks, then they need to do what many restaurants have done in places that don’t have such ridiculous regulation, and that’s start a food truck of their own. Further, many entrepreneurial chefs see the food truck market as a low overhead more viable model to use their talents and ideas to start business.

    Also, the fear of uncleanliness in food trucks is mostly just an urban myth based on ignorant and illogical assumptions; and that fear in some cases is harnessed by overbearing gov’ts. If a food vendor sells food out of their truck that gets people sick, they will go out of business. Just like any other neighborhood brick and mortar, if you poison your clients, amazingly enough they don’t return. This type of market has a way of self-regulation. And in reality, I would bet that given the small space and visibility to the customer of the prep area in food truck or stand, the consumer pressure to keep the area clean makes for much cleaner kitchens that can hide behind brick and mortar. Food trucks just may be cleaner w/o any asinine regs. Once again, self-regulation at work.

    Btw NYC, keep it up…Us down here in Austin are benefiting from great entrepreneurial chefs that can easily open food trailer in our foodie town.

  • Jim Luebke

    It’s astonishing that a city famous for decades for its streetside hot dog carts hasn’t developed a workable set of rules for this kind of thing.

    This should have been a solved problem generations ago.

  • ojfl

    One has to wonder in a city as big as New York, with a vibrant word of mouth marketing, if all of this food regulation is indeed needed. Give people bad food at your own peril.

  • Eric J.

    I think the bigger threat from food trucks is not to brick and mortar restaurant, but the nearly identical hot dog-and-schwarma carts on every corner.

  • Kavanna

    Food trucks are nothing new. When I lived in Philly 20 years ago, the city simply issued certificates to food trucks similar to restaurants.

    The new problem in NYC today is the pressure of established firms trying to use an already strangling regulatory system to stop competition. (Something similar is happening in the even more “progressive” DC.) Surely, they sense that a city bureaucracy already attuned to the needs of existing establishments and a patronizing bully of a mayor makes it the right moment.

  • John Burke

    Normally, I’m skeptical of overregulation, but sometimes regulation makes sense, and street food vendors in NYC is one place it makes sense. Certainly, food trucks should meet the same health and sanitation standards as the city’s thousands of restaurants and take out joints. Beyond that, such issues as where they can park to do business are not overly picky. Manhattan streets — and sidewalks! — during the day are packed with traffic. Planting a 16-foot van at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street at noon will inconvenience thousands of people, and after all, if you’re running your business on public property, not your property, you can hardly complain about limits being imposed.

    And by the way, NYC does not distinguish between food trucks and food carts, which have the same licensing procedures. The number if these businesses is limited by a statutory ceiling on the number of annual permits that may be issued. There are 3100 available each year (which seems like a lot to me), plus another 1000 seasonal permits valid only in the warmer months. Fruit and vegetable carts are in a separate category with another 1000 permitted.

  • Mogumbo Gono

    Nanny Bloomberg is the worst thing to happen to NYC, including Tropical Storm Sandy and 9/11/2001.

    Now I live in the Peoples’ Socialist Soviet of California, where the same bureaucratic mind-set is in place. A few yearsa ago, when lots of Vienamese car washes sprang up to do a damn good job of washing your car for only $3, the car washes got together and had the city run them off.

    Who was hurt? Us little people were the ones hurt. Now we get a $16 car wash — and half the time some Hispanic car washer steals our audio CD’s. [Well, maybe not half the time. But the Vietnamese were much more honest.]

    Government is our biggest problem by far. Food trucks and car washes are no problems by comparison. I would love to see a fat lazy city bureaucrat attmept to make a living with a food truck business.

    As if!

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service