We reveal what's not on the menu at mobile eateries.
1. "We're not supposed to be here."
Food trucks seem to be clogging streets as well as arteries. These kitchens on wheels accounted for 37% of the $1.4 billion in street vending revenue nationwide last year -- a 15% increase over the past five years, according to researcher IBISWorld Inc. The rapidly growing fleet of gourmet trucks hawking specialty dishes like Korean tacos, Hawaiian French toast and rattlesnake sandwiches has local municipalities scrambling to regulate the industry, citing concerns about the large crowds, noise and mess they sometimes create.
To appease local business owners and residents worried about disruptions many cities are setting restrictions on how close food trucks can park to competing restaurants or how long they can stay in one spot. In parts of Nevada, the trucks have to relocate every 30 minutes. In Washington D.C., food trucks are technically supposed to move out of a spot once the line of customers they're serving clears. And in New York City police last year pushed many popular food trucks out of midtown Manhattan by enforcing a decades old rule banning vending from metered parking spaces.
Food truck owners say these tight restrictions often force them to choose between following the law or forgoing profits. "It's illegal to park your truck anywhere in New York except for a few spots," says Susan Povich, co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Truck. The trucks often have to park illegally since it's tough to find parking spaces in commercial areas that aren't metered, she says. Organizations representing the new businesses are banding together to challenge legislation they feel is outdated. In Los Angeles County, the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association is lobbying against requirements that limit how long trucks can park in one spot and how close they can be to competing establishments, says Matt Geller, chief executive officer for the group. In New York, some trucks are sharing a coveted spot in front of the New York City Public Library on a rotating basis, and donating part of the proceeds to the library.
2. "Your favorite restaurant hates us."
While the trucks delight foodies in search of gourmet goods on the go, restaurants aren't always fans. Competing eateries argue the trucks steal customers and, due to their lack of overhead, are able to undercut prices, according to a report by Technomic, a food industry research firm. While it's unclear how much bricks-and-mortar restaurants may be losing to food trucks, the industry recently launched a campaign against the trucks, citing poor food safety, among other issues. "There's been a lot of resistance from the restaurant association," says Kristi Whitfield, co-owner of the Curbside Cupcakes truck in Washington D.C.
And the rivalry, officials say, isn't always pretty. "Most of the complaints [about the trucks] seem to come from local food establishments that are in competition with them," says Jonathan Dalton, an environmental health specialist with the Southern Nevada Health District who handles food inspections. And he estimates roughly 80% of the complaints -- everything from servers not washing their hands to food not being properly stored -- prove to be unsubstantiated.
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Many restaurant and food truck owners, however, say they welcome the competition, adding it should be up to the customer to decide which food establishments stay on the block. And studies show the food trucks pose the biggest threat to fast-food and quick-service restaurants, not traditional sit-down eateries. Some 54% of consumers surveyed by Technomic last year said if they had not bought at a food truck, they would have likely gone to a quick-service restaurant instead. Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, which represents some food truck owners, says the mobile vendors are a viable way to sell food and a laboratory for aspiring restaurateurs to test the appetite for niche recipes.
3. "We're not all held to the same standards."
Over 2,000 different state and local agencies in the U.S. are responsible for inspecting food trucks, according to the Food and Drug Administration. That means safety standards vary widely across the country. Regulators for the most part require mobile food vendors to have hot and cold running water, a refrigerator, and to dispose of waste properly, but some specific rules can differ. In Los Angeles, food trucks must also park within 200 feet of a bathroom where workers can wash their hands. In Southern Nevada, all food handlers must be certified in food safety, but in some cities only part of the staff must be certified. In New York City, restaurants are given letter grades following health inspections, but not food trucks. In L.A., the trucks also get graded.
Those differences raise red flags for food safety advocates who want to see national standards for how food is handled and stored on trucks. "We really believe that there should be a uniform food safety system for people regardless of where they are," says Nancy Donley, a spokeswoman for Stop Foodborne Illness, an advocacy group. For example, she says at least one worker on every truck should be trained in food safety methods. Problems can arise: from 1998 to 2010 there were 53 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses from food prepared at a fair, festival or other mobile food service, infecting 1,186 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And those numbers represent just a fraction of cases, experts say.
4. "I don't have a license."
The huge demand for street food in cities like New York and Los Angeles coupled with the high regulatory costs and requirements has led to a growing number of unlicensed trucks. New York grants roughly 3,000 city-wide permits for selling food out of a truck or cart but the waiting list for those permits is currently closed. And those who made the list could be waiting for 10 years to legally obtain approval, says Matthew Shapiro, staff attorney for the Street Vendor Project, an organization that represents and advocates for vendors in the city. Those who can't afford to wait often obtain them illegally on the black market -- a process the city is trying to crack down on -- or set up shop without a permit. "Many people are selling without permits because they need to feed their families," says Shapiro, who argues the number of underground food trucks would decrease if cities would expand the number of permits and licenses available.
While no definitive data on the size of the market exists, inspectors say unlicensed food vendors pose a threat to consumers because they aren't inspected or monitored for food safety practices. "There's still a lot out there that are not permitted," says Terri Williams, assistant director for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, who adds that making sure vendors are permitted -- and that regulators know where they are getting and preparing their food -- is a top priority for her department. Vendors can face fines, jail time and have their property confiscated if they are caught selling food illegally.
5. "It's not the cleanliness of the truck that should worry you."
Kitchen floors littered with mice droppings. Food being cooked out of garbage cans. Roach poison being sprayed carelessly in areas where meals are being prepared. Those are some of the disturbing conditions Jonathan Dalton, an environmental health specialist with the Southern Nevada Health District, said he's found in outside kitchens being used by food truck owners. Of course, regular restaurants also get cited for similar violations.
Regulators say most of the problems arise when truck operators illegally prepare and store food at home, where health inspectors can't go. In L.A. County, that's one of the most common complaints, says Williams. "We can't guarantee the safety of that food," she says. In most cities, food must be cooked directly on the truck or in a commercial kitchen that is inspected at least once a year. Dalton says the biggest offenders are unlicensed businesses, though once a month he catches permitted vendors illegally storing packaged food at home.
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