Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Growth of Food Trucks

Food Truck Fest in Troy, NY (Photo: Townsquare Media)
Here at LOA we are paying close attention to food trends as this category continues to grow its share of overall consumer spending. Consumer dining habits are rapidly shifting as more and more spending is happening on meals outside the home than on buying groceries and eating in, according to the most recent expenditure data (Bureau of Economic Analysis, Q1 2016). In recent months, we’ve covered the new categorization of food services, and delved deeper into food hubs and food halls, but now it’s time to take a closer look at food trucks.

Food trucks are establishments primarily engaged in preparing and serving meals from a mobile truck. Food is normally prepared, stored and cooked on the truck and the truck may or may not use the same location every day. Today, there are over 4,000 food trucks across the nation. According to IBISWorld, a market research firm, from 2011 to 2016 industry revenue grew at an annual rate of 7.9% and in 2016 reached over $1.2 billion – and that’s why we’re paying attention to this industry.

NYC Food Truck (Photo: Sacha Fernandez)
Like full service restaurants and other eating places, food trucks can primarily be found in densely populated cities and regions. According to a Zagat survey from 2012, the most concentrated cities include New York (11.1% of industry establishments), Boston, Washington, DC, Miami, Houston, Austin, TX, Cleveland, Chicago, Portland, OR, and Los Angeles. The West and Mid-Atlantic are the most important regions for this industry, accounting for an estimated 25.2% and 23.3% of food trucks in 2016, respectively. As its popularity grows in Florida, the Southeast is also anticipated to account for a greater substantial share of food truck establishments.

Food trucks, however, were never this popular in the past. Early on in its inception, food trucks predominantly existed to serve the budget-strapped working class citizen searching for a cheap lunch deal. Trucks would be parked by construction sites and a hefty meal would cost no more than $6-8. Food trucks were also widely acknowledged by entrepreneurs as the quickest and most affordable way to break into the food business with low set-up, operating and licensing costs.

Today, the tables have turned. Food trucks are increasingly being used as promotional and marketing tools for established chefs, hotels, and restaurant brands. Bigger companies and national chains are using food trucks to service private events and music festivals just to get their name out there. Brian Pekarcik and Rick Stern, co-owners of Spoon and BRGR restaurants in Pittsburgh, launched a BRGR truck for that very reason. “As brand recognition, it's a great advertising piece,” they explained. “And we expect that it will drive customers to our restaurants.”

Food Trucks on parking lot in San Francisco, CA (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski)
And meals are not as cheap anymore because the trendy, young professional seeking new and gourmet food has now become a major customer segment in densely populated cities.  These changes are also reflected in successful sales locations for food trucks. In 2015, only 15% of food truck sales were made at industrial/ construction work sites versus 18% at venues and events, according to Mobile-Cuisine.Com.

Cities, however, are still trying to navigate this burgeoning industry. Some are implementing programs and policies in support of these small food businesses, while others are taking a protectionist approach by heavily regulating and hindering the growth of food truck operators for fear that they may take away sales of brick-and mortar restaurants and eateries. Others also blame mobile food trucks for congesting sidewalks and streets and diminishing the urban quality of life.

Food trucks outside restaurant in Cleveland, OH (Photo:E Little)
In Chicago, IL, for example, food trucks are being held back by regulations that prohibit them from setting up shop within 200 feet of a bricks and mortar restaurant or from parking in any one location for more than two hours. Bricks and mortar restaurants are often, if not always, located near the retail core of downtowns and near entertainment and leisure destinations where a considerable amount of foot traffic is already established. By disallowing food trucks from setting up in those areas, they may be pushed to peripheries of downtowns or less attractive streets where there isn’t a sufficient threshold of customers to break even. Also, in Chicago, where parking ratios are lower, food trucks would be hard pressed to find desirable parking spots quickly – resulting in lost critical sales hours. These restrictions and more have stifled the industry’s growth in Chicago at a 1:100 ratio of food truck to restaurants.

Food truck on Leather Lane, London UK (Photo: duncan c)
This defensive position, however, may be unfounded because the Bureau of Labour Statistics has found that counties that have experienced higher growth in mobile-food services have also had quicker growth in their restaurant and catering businesses. For example, in Seattle, the number of restaurants and surrounding King County has grown by 16% since 2010 in spite of a thriving food-truck scene. In Travis County, Texas, which includes Austin, the restaurant count has jumped 18% even as food trucks have increased more than six-fold. In fact, in Houston TX, restaurants have experienced increased business generated by food trucks parking nearby and drawing more people to the restaurants’ neighborhoods. Restaurant owners themselves have reportedly asked the Houston City Council to ease existing laws that make it difficult for food trucks to operate.

In other cities, parking laws and other ordinances are evolving to catch up with the industry’s transformation and although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some best practices from around the country if you’re looking to take a supportive approach leaned towards fair ordinances that allow food truck vendors to flourish.

BEST PRACTICE: Austin, TX – Simple and non-prescriptive Food Truck Ordinance
In the City’s Zoning Ordinance, mobile food establishments, or food trucks, are permitted in all commercial and industrial zoning districts and are minimally restricted from operating between the hours of 3:00 am and 6:00 am. The distance restriction on operating a food truck near a restaurant is also very minimal at 20 feet, versus the 200 feet in Chicago.  In more residential neighborhoods, the City allows for neighborhood association areas to reasonably request further restrictions on the operations of food trucks to avoid noise and litter nuisances in predominantly more residential areas.  And that really is the end of the restrictions on food truck operations in the City.

BEST PRACTICE: Cincinnati, OH – Streamlined permitting process
Austin , TX and Cincinnati, OH are two cities that have streamlined and centralized their food truck permitting processes. This strategy lowers time and cost on the part of small business owners hoping to license their food trucks and start operating. Austin’s permitting web page has detachable forms and blank spots for the necessary signatures, with instructions regarding who to contact to obtain those signatures. On the same page, it also specifies the actual schematics of the truck components required for food preparation and handling safety, and best of all, nowhere does it suggest to refer to a subsection of the zoning code or statute not included in the document. Simplifying and making the process clear is crucial to encouraging food truck vendors.  Meanwhile in Ohio, the Cincinnati Department of Health is the only agency responsible for the city’s permitting process, application process, and payments associated with the city’s mobile food vending. Half the time, food truck vendors are required to submit applications to four or five different agencies and this process can become confusing for applicants.

Food Truck Thursday in Washington DC (Photo: Ted Eytan)
BEST PRACTICE: Washington DC – Mobile Roadway Vending Zones
Farragut Square, Washington DC, is now a vibrant outdoor food court since the city implemented Mobile Roadway Vending zones, or MRVs, in 2013 allowing trucks to vend for four continuous hours without breaking parking laws. The city rolled out eight MRVs that year, including ones at Farragut Square, Franklin Square, L’Enfant Plaza and Metro Center. 95 parking spots were made available in the MRVs and are handed out via a monthly lottery. These food trucks sell food at lunch hour to the thousands of workers in each district.

Food truck on private lot in Brooklyn NY (Photo: Jason Lam)
BEST PRACTICE: Portland, Oregon – Vacant Lots for food truck clusters
After a study in 2008 by researchers at Portland State University that concluded food carts benefited residents, the city began encouraging the use of vacant land for food-truck clusters or “pods”. The No-Vacancy guide explores temporary use of vacant space (including food truck vending!) and its applicability in the Central Eastside Industrial District. The guide shows property owners and food truck vendors how to navigate permitting and zoning processes in these scenarios.

Establish a pilot program!
If your downtown is still getting its feet wet in the food truck business, try implementing a pilot program to make informed decisions on what regulations to adopt in the future. Pilot programs are meant to test the waters and can very easily bring to light the issues that are unique to your community.  A small pilot program will also minimize any unintended impacts while still gleaning insight on what works and what doesn’t locally.

The City of Cambridge, whom we are currently consulting with on a citywide retail market strategy, launched a pilot program in 2011 that allowed permitted mobile food trucks to park in spots adjacent to riverfront parks. An initiative of the Community Development Department, the program was used to determine whether a future, permanent program should be implemented.  In the pilot, food truck vendors had to apply to participate in the program and spaces were leased on a week-by-week basis for a per-day fee.

By the end of the pilot, the City learned that the designated vending spots did not work for trucks. The City has selected low pedestrian traffic areas or times because it had wanted to activate these spaces, however it backfired on vendors who found they could not make their businesses financially viable in those areas. The City also learned quickly that a cluster of trucks needed to be marketed versus just one at each spot. Marketing and communicating to the customers that there were more than a single food option was found to be more effective.

With all the lessons learned, the City of Cambridge hopes to re-launch a new food truck program with policy improvements that were suggested by food truck operators.

Let us know if your city has an effective food truck program too!

Institute for Justice’s Food-Truck Freedom Report:

Urban Vitality Group and City of Portland’s Food Cartology Report:

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