There continues to be a steady increase in the mobile food vending businesses across the country. Smart Money has dug a little deeper into the mobile trucks to find out what food vendors don't want us to know.
With increasingly changing city ordinances due often times to complaints from local restaurants feeling the impact of the mobile vendors, some American cities have made it quite challenging for food vendors to conduct business. Laws vary from city to city and often include restrictions such as how far from a restaurant a vendor can park or how long a vendor can stay in one spot. Food truck owners say these tight restrictions often force them to choose between following the law and following their profits.
According to food research firm Technomic, restaurants are not always fans of mobile vendors. Overhead costs of mobile vending are much lower than running a restaurant, allowing food vendors to undercut prices and steal customers. Studies show however, that mobile food trucks pose the biggest threat to fast-food restaurants rather than traditional sit-down eateries.
According to the Food & Drug Administration, there are over 2,000 state and local agencies in the U.S. who are responsible for inspecting food trucks. There is no common regulation or set of standards for inspections, which means that the safety standards vary widely across the country. General regulations require mobile food vendors to have hot & cold running water, a refrigerator and proper waste disposal, but other specifics vary per city. Food safety advocates are demanding national standards for food handling and storage on food trucks. The need is there; from 1998 to 2010 there were 53 outbreaks of food borne 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.
This is more of a problem in bigger cities such as New York and Los Angeles where the demand for food trucks is steadily rising yet the regulatory costs and strict requirements have lead to a growing number of food trucks operating illegally. For example, 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. Further, those who made the waiting list could be waiting for 10 years to legally obtain approval. Vendors who cannot afford to wait 10 years almost understandably obtain permits illegally on the black market, or simply operate without a permit hoping to get away with it. With no definitive data on the size of the markets, unlicensed food vendors pose a potential threat to consumers because these trucks are not inspected or monitored for food safety practices.
One of the most common complaints says Terri Williams, assistant director for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, is that the inspectors cannot guarantee the safety of the food because it is often prepared & stored (illegally) at home, where heath inspectors can’t go. In most cities food must be prepared directly on the truck or in a commercial kitchen with yearly inspections.
These mobile trucks can reach scorching temperatures inside, sometimes posing a challenge to operators to keep food cool enough before it is prepared. Truck owners estimate that temps reach as high as 130 degrees F on the hottest summer days, so they must be extra vigilant about how long and how often the refrigerator is opened and frequently check the temperatures of the stored foods. Some vendors even close up shop during the hottest summer months.
Mobile food vendors use social media as a fine tool for advertising. Sites like Twitter and Facebook also help vendors follow and change regulations.
Sure social media is wonderful for the food vendors to inform their followers of their locations; however foodies are not the only ones to follow the tweets and posts of the food trucks. Local health inspectors and regulators say that social media is a great way to get information on where to locate the trucks for surprise safety inspections. Regulators have an easier time now more than ever finding trucks to inspect thanks to changing culture and technology.
Gone are the days when food trucks sold only hot dogs and tacos. Today’s food carts have branched out to carry more gourmet selections. In 2011, half of food truck customers paid more than $5 for a lunch meal; today the average spent at a food truck is more like $15.
10. “We’re losing our edge.”
At one time mobile food trucks had a grassroots allure to them. However, in recent years with the rise of the mobile food vending industry, bigger food chains have decided to join in on the food truck scene. Food giants Jack in the Box, Sizzler and Taco Bell have infiltrated the market, taking some of the allure with it. Generally foodies are looking for up and coming eateries when hitting up food trucks…they don’t want to see the same choices they can find in mass-marketed chains.