Thinking About Food Trucks

In last week’s Washington City Paper, Tim Carman does a great job analyzing the controversy surrounding the growing number of food trucks blanketing the city. I really like Carman’s piece because it takes a pretty balanced look at the different players in what’s shaping up to be a major legislative battle. There are a lot of interested parties with something to lose.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

This is an interesting topic to me. It’s something I’ve written about previously. But I think there are two angles that get overlooked in Carman’s piece. First, how do food trucks really impact restaurant markets? Second, how do food trucks affect streetscapes?

Food Truck Economics
The prevailing opinion among brick-and-mortar restaurant owners and the Business Improvement Districts that represent them is that food sales are zero-sum. So a truck that sells food to people must therefore take sales away from other restaurants. I’m not sure I buy it. There’s a compelling reason to think food trucks could create new economies of agglomeration, which would actually benefit brick-and-mortar restaurants.

This is particularly true downtown, where lunch options are often bland and limited. What food trucks could do is get people to come down from their office buildings instead of brown bagging their lunch or eating at the company cafeteria. Obviously more research is needed on this question, but it’s not fair to assume that all food sales have to tradeoff.

I’ve only eaten at a few of these trucks (my office isn’t in a part of town that seems to attract them) but my experience hasn’t been all that amazing. Yes, the food is tasty, but you have to remember that it’s food from a truck. It’s prepared, cooked and served in the back of a tiny, tiny vehicle; and there really is a limit to how good it can be.

Food Truck Urbanism
How do trucks impact streetscapes? On the one hand, getting people out onto the streets and sidewalks creates a vibrant atmosphere. At the same time, sidewalks crowded with people to the point where no one can get through is problematic. And since these trucks just drive away at the end of the day, there’s the question of whether they ultimately hurt the neighborhoods where they do their business.

I'm inclined to conclude that, in general, food trucks improve the streetscapes where they park - at least while they're there. That said, I think the fact that food trucks actually do drive away every night means that they can only complement vibrant places, not create them on their own. Ultimately, a neighborhood will need to attract real brick-and-mortar businesses to thrive.