The burghers rise up

IT WAS in 2008 that an out-of-work chef named Roy Choi began selling $2 Korean barbecue tacos from a roaming kitchen on wheels, tweeting to customers as he drove the streets of Los Angeles. Mr Choi’s gourmet food truck has since inspired a reality-TV programme and a hit Hollywood film, and helped jumpstart a $1.2bn industry.

Within the food industry, the food-truck business, built on unique dishes, low prices and clever use of social media, is the fastest-growing segment. Restaurants fret about an army of trucks stealing customers but such concerns are unwarranted. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, counties that have experienced higher growth in mobile-food services have also had quicker growth in their restaurant and catering businesses.

Although many cities have treated food trucks as a fad, a nuisance, or a threat to existing businesses, others have actively promoted them. Portland, Oregon, known for its vibrant culinary scene, has had small food carts on its streets for decades. After a study in 2008 by researchers at Portland State University concluded that the carts benefited residents, the city began encouraging the use of vacant land for food-truck clusters or “pods”. Today, Food Carts Portland, a website, reckons the city has over 500 carts and trucks.

Yet government figures suggest the revolution has stalled in several of the country’s biggest cities (see chart). The sector is subject to a patchwork of state and local regulations. In few places are these stricter than in Chicago. Influenced by a powerful restaurant industry, the city prohibits food trucks from setting up shop within 200 feet of a bricks-and-mortar eatery or from parking in any one location for more than two hours. Vendors are required to carry GPS devices that record their whereabouts every five minutes, on pain of heavy fines. Such restrictions have stifled the industry’s growth. Despite being home to more than 7,000 restaurants and 144 craft breweries, Chicago has just 70 licensed food trucks.

The Windy City may be the least food-truck-friendly place in America but New York and Boston are little better. In Boston vendors must compete for space on public roads at specified places and times through an annual lottery. In New York a vendor must obtain a two-year government permit, which requires sitting through a 15-year waiting list or shelling out as much as $25,000 to rent one on the black market. Adam Sobel, owner of Cinnamon Snail, a popular vegan food truck, shut down his operations in 2015 because of rising costs. “You kind of have to be crazy to have a food truck in New York,” he says.

Fortunately, truck operators can drive to more welcoming cities, such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Once there, and no matter how cosy they get with policymakers, truck owners still want to cultivate their underdog image. “It used to be the restaurants and their chefs that had all the power,” says Han Hwang, the chef and owner of Portland’s Kim Jong Grillin’. “Now it’s the people. That’s the revolution that’s happening right now.”