Why Food Trucks Are Not Evil

Please, please, PLEASE come to OC, Dessert Truck!
Please, please, PLEASE come to OC, Dessert Truck!

Nancy Luna (the Fast Food Maven) is someone whose writing I admire, and she scoops absolutely everything about fast food in OC. I know that when the Buttermilk Truck or the Grilled Cheese Truck or any of the other, suddenly-fashionable higher-end food trucks come to OC, she will know about it before they even tweet it, and so I was glad to see a post about more food trucks coming to OC, because it probably means she has insider information.

I read through the post (and Nancy, you're a food truck tease) and am excited by what I read, but the comments! The comments made me cringe.

You'd think I'd have learned by now never, ever, ever to read comments on any story at all on the Register's website. There has to be some kind of OC corollary to Godwin's Law, whereby the chance of someone ranting, usually completely off-topic, about illegal immigrants increases exponentially with the length of the comment thread.

The comments on Nancy's post weren't as xenophobic as normal for the Register, but they still made me cringe. They contain nearly all the stereotypical, misinformed objections to food trucks. Read on, dear readers, as I tackle the big ones in turn:

1. Sanitation

It's hard to be unsanitary when your customers can see everything about your operation.
It's hard to be unsanitary when your customers can see everything about your operation.
Courtesy of Bill Esparza

Let's just get this right out of the way. I have eaten at food vendors from Hong Kong to London. I have eaten so-called "dirty water" hot dogs, barbecue brisket, grilled squid on sticks, Mexico City-style quesadillas de huitlacoche and, yes, Korean grilled pork tacos, and I have never gotten sick. Not only have I never gotten sick from a mobile vendor, I don't know anyone who has ever gotten sick from food from a mobile vendor. I have, however, gotten food poisoning on multiple occasions at bricks-and-mortar restaurants. Now, while the ratio of time I eat at mobile vendors vs. bricks-and-mortar restaurants is fairly low, it's definitely high enough that I should have gotten sick by now if sanitation were the issue the detractors say it is.

The simple fact is that there's nothing to hide about the sanitation of a food truck, because food trucks are almost always small mom-and-pop operations that succeed or fail based on word of mouth. If a food truck (I'm sorry, leasing people, I'm not going to call them "road stoves") poisons someone, it is the kiss of death for that business, so they are going to make absolutely sure that they don't. They're under constant inspection by their patrons, who can see exactly what is going on in there. If they engage in unsanitary practices, people will just leave, and they'll tell others, and it's curtains for the owner.

2. Neighborhood disturbance

Parking trucks away from homes helps keep the peace.
Parking trucks away from homes helps keep the peace.
joits @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This one depends on where you are. Somehow, I don't really see food trucks driving into the maze of tracts that makes up most of OC's residential zone. Most food trucks don't want to pull into residential neighborhoods, because there's hardly any traffic that drives by; eating at a food truck is often an impulse decision ("I'm hungry... mmm, barbacoa.") and the trucks are there to make money, just like any other business.

This is one complaint, however, where the food trucks can take a step to make sure they're being good neighbors. Don't stop in parking lots adjacent to residences (such as the weekly Kogi stop at Luigi's D'Italia in Anaheim); pick a spot that isn't going to keep people awake in their houses until the wee hours. Provide trash (and recycling) receptacles.

For those people who choose to flout the rules, the answer is simple: fine them. Fine customers for littering, or fine the trucks for not cleaning up after their patrons. We already have laws about littering: enforce them. There will always be people who don't want to be good neighbors, but the solution is not to ban food trucks completely. Fine the bad ones and let the good ones sell food in peace. 

3. Taxes and Competition

One of the biggest beefs restaurateurs have about food trucks is that they aren't subject to the same taxes and rules as bricks-and-mortar restaurants, and that this is inherently unfair.

There's a simple reason for this: Food trucks are different. There isn't a sensible taxation structure in place, and there needs to be. In most places, restaurants are taxed based on the number of seats, or the square footage. This isn't practical for food trucks, who don't have seats (usually) or square footage. I don't have an MBA and I don't work for the government, so I can't say how this should work, but there's got to be a way to level the playing field. (Sorry, food truck people. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but that's life.)

As for the unfair competition business, I call bollocks.

If your business is so similar to a food truck that people passing by will go to the food truck instead of into your business, well, this is America, home of the capitalist dream. Lease a food truck yourself, enjoy the lack of taxes (for now) and different rules. Go out there, do it better than your competition, and reap the rewards. Chances are if that's the case, you could do just as well without the overhead of the building.

People normally go to restaurants because they want to be served. They want to sit and have their food brought to them, and they want air conditioning and bathrooms and real silverware. They want wine or beer or a drink with dinner, things that are not possible with food trucks. People who fit this description are not going to pause on the way in to an Italian trattoria for a $15 plate of lasagne and a glass of Chianti and decide they'd rather have a grilled cheese sandwich and a bottle of Jarritos from a truck instead. There's room for both restaurants and food trucks, and anyone who thinks that OC would turn into a vast, congested obstacle course of food trucks with no physical restaurants is either overdramatic or deluded.

4. Foods We'd Like To See Sold From Trucks

Imagine if this were available on the streets of OC...
Imagine if this were available on the streets of OC...

The suggestions in the comments on Nancy's post include Carl's Jr. (which already has a mobile food truck, as does In-N-Out), Coco's, "a clash between Quizno's and Subway," Popeye's, Rubio's and Baja Fresh.

I'm mentally poking my eyes out, because you cannot drive a mile on a major road (at least in north OC) without hitting at least one of these stores or clones of them. There's simply no reason for them to sell from trucks. Also, the Mexican food sold from the trucks is normally so far superior to Rubio's and Baja Fresh that it's embarrassing for the chains.

If having roving trucks of this stuff would cause people to change their minds about food trucks in general, though, then go for it: carpet the county with mediocre chain fast food sold from trucks.

One of the commenters bemoaned the lack of choice for work lunches in Yorba Linda. The great thing about food trucks is that they can turn any restaurant wasteland into a place to get your grub on, even if it's only for an hour or so. As an example, one particularly unlovely section of Burbank is made tolerable by the visit of a couple of food trucks every day; breakfast burritos in the morning, then tacos or Italian food at lunchtime. There's no reason Yorba Linda couldn't have trucks going through and delivering people from the burden of Same Three Restaurants Syndrome.

As for me, my personal list of foods I would dearly love to see sold from food trucks in OC includes arancini (risotto balls stuffed with things and deep-fried), dim sum-type snacks (can you imagine walking out of work and getting a cha shu bao?), soft pretzels like I had as a kid in New Jersey, real French crêpes, and Italian-American food like sausage and pepper sandwiches, pasta, etc.  One of the hallmarks of a great city (and I'm counting OC and our 3,000,000 people as a "city") is the presence of great street food. New York has it; Chicago has it; Mexico City has it; Toronto has it; nearly all of Asia has it. All of these places have vibrant restaurant scenes AND vibrant street food scenes. If street food and restaurant food can coexist there, they can coexist here.

Thanks, Nancy, for covering the scene for those of us who don't think food trucks are the tools of the devil, and here's hoping that your readers will stop and think about it before posting things. I'm looking forward to more news about roving chow... and now I desperately want a pambazo from a taco table.

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