The real star of the movie “Chef” is a food truck named “El Jefe” and a sandwich called “Cubano”. In last summer’s indie hit which grossed over $31 million, an acclaimed chef ditches the restaurant life for the freedom of a food truck. Jon Favreau teamed up with Chef Roy Choi to provide a realistic portrayal of the life of a food truck operator on a cross-country tour.
Running a food truck is a career path more Americans are choosing. Big cities have had food trucks for years, and the roving restaurants are starting to become a force in smaller towns. But not everyone is welcoming the competition. Restaurant owners are waging a street fight over food trucks.
According to a 2014 study, more than 4100 food trucks are now open for business in nearly 300 cities. Bricks and mortar restaurants say food trucks are eating away at their profit because they spend money on advertising and promotion to bring people to their restaurant, but food trucks are allowed to capitalize on that. Gavin Coleman, owner of The Dubliner in Washington, D.C. tells CBS Evening News, “We depend on peak hours of service, lunch being one of them. So to have food trucks come in and sit right outside of my door and take away from that peak hour makes it tough to survive the other 18 hours that we’re open.”
Some cities are addressing the competition, as well as safety and public health concerns, by enacting strict regulations on food trucks. Chicago is the toughest, where cooking on trucks was once banned and trucks still are not allowed to operate within 200 feet of a restaurant. Pittsburgh forces operators to move their trucks every 30 minutes. That’s obviously a huge negative for food truck operators who largely promote their business, and their locations, through social media sites like Twitter. “Even if we have to move once, people are going to complain they can’t find us,” said Skip Stellhorn, who runs Pollo Fritto, a fried-chicken truck in the San Francisco Bay area, to the Wall Street Journal.
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But not all cities have been successful in their attempts to regulate food trucks. El Paso, Texas was forced to overturn a 2009 ordinance prohibiting where food trucks could do business after being sued by four local food truck vendors. The Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Virginia is a public interest law firm that sees restrictions on food trucks as an issue of “economic liberty” and has gotten involved in legal battles in many cities.
Other communities simply choose not to be tough on trucks. A third of cities surveyed by the National League of Cities reported no time limits on food trucks. Half of those surveyed didn’t ban them near restaurants, or had lenient restrictions.
Healthy Competition or Unfair Playing Field?
Food truck operators say they provide an entirely different experience than bricks and mortar restaurants since they offer limited menus at a lower price point. “No restaurant in our area serves crepes, so we are serving a totally different clientele than local restaurants. If you want to go to a restaurant, you go for the experience as well as the food. You want to sit down and be served. A food truck is more similar to fast food. It’s quick; you can grab it on the go. It’s a completely different clientele,” said Christina Brunet-Sebastia, who operates Mimi’s Bistro on the Go, a French crepe truck in Pensacola, Florida along with her husband Milan.
Future food truck operators should be aware of the possible competition and pushback from local restaurants, as well as the ever-changing industry regulations.