Are Food Trucks Good or Bad for the Twin Cities?

A food truck on the U of MN campus, where good food is rare as a three-toed walrus.

The Case Against Food Trucks

I was at an urban planning function a while back when someone asked me, “What do you think of food trucks?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “They seem pretty good to me.”

“They’re terrible!” he or she declared. “They suck all the business from legitimate restaurants. They’re ruining cities. Instead of opening up an actual café, people just buy one of these food trucks and park it on a corner. They don’t pay any taxes. Then they make a bunch of money, close up for the winter, and go down to Mexico. It’s ruining business for actual restaurants in actual buildings.”

It made me think. Popular as they are, the case against food trucks may be somewhat legitimate. Food trucks can and do park outside of actual brick and mortar joints that pay property taxes and fill our empty street fronts. Lots of these cafés are running on very thin margins, struggling to make a profit in our underwhelmingly people’d cities. Is it really good public policy to encourage and cultivate a bunch of mobile restaurants-on-wheels when so much of our commercial real estate sits empty? Why should a entrepreneur who has invested thousands in fixing up an old building, who pays much-needed property taxes to the city, and who serves as a custodian of the street in a hundred invisible ways be forced to compete with someone driving a CO2 spewing truck around the asphalt, tweeting like the Pied Piper? Is that fair? Is that a good policy decision?

A food truck parked by the Fulton Brewery, which until recently, was outside the “designated food truck zone.”

Street vendors in Los Angeles.

The Long-Running Battle Between Street Vendors and Shop Owners

This kind of debate is nothing new. As this wonderful hitstory of sidewalk debates points out, attempts to restrict street vending go waaaaay back into history. For example, in 1691, New York City (New Amsterdam?) prohibited selling on the streets until two hours after the official markets opened. After street vending blew up following the 19th century explosion of US cities, a whole new series of ordinances and regulations emerged to try and control the practice. The history of LA’s attempts to control push cart and sidewalk fruit vendors reads like a Tolstoy novel, replete with strikes and fees and police crackdowns and backroom deals and precise legal definitions of “fowl.” A more recent example is New York’s policing of book and magazine vendors, which was part of that city’s semi-fascist Giuliani-fueled crackdown on “quality of life” crimes.

The basic debate is not just about taxes and the maintaining buildings. There’s also a struggle over how sidewalks and public spaces should be used. Is the sidewalk primarily a space for social interaction, for eating and drinking and selling and buying and stopping and talking and sitting and sleeping and protest? Or is the sidewalk a space to move through, a means of transportation?

Throughout most of the 20th century, our society has opted for Door #2. Almost all cities have ordinances on the books that reserve the sidewalk for foot traffic, as means for getting from A to B. For example, Minneapolis Code 427.110 says:

No person shall place or suffer to be placed upon or over any sidewalk, or suspend over any street, any goods, wares or merchandise for sale, show or otherwise beyond the front line of the lot where such goods may be placed, suspended or exposed. (Unless, of course, they have a permit.)

Or code 427.130:

No person shall sell or attempt to sell, or offer or cry for sale at public auction in the city any goods, chattels, wares, merchandise or personal property whatever to any person upon the sidewalks or streets; nor shall any person by ringing a bell, gong or triangle, or any loud cries, give notice of any auction or sale of any kind upon the streets or sidewalks of the city. (Unless, again, they have a permit.)

You are not allowed to “coast or side carelessly,” “play any game of ball,” “engage in any … amusement” or (as anyone who has tried to have a political protest knows) “congregate … as three (3) or more persons … to obstruct the free passage of pedestrians.”  (Don’t get me started about dancing on the street.)

Street vendors in New York.

In some ways, the debate over food trucks is a remnant of this age-old fight over how our streets and sidewalks should be used. According to the modern 20th century model, commerce should take place inside proper buildings run by proper tax payers with proper signage.  Streets and sidewalks and outdoor spaces are for moving cars (and walking people) around as efficiently as possible. On other other hand, with the  the 19th century model, all sorts of things are happening on the streets. People are haggling and selling and panhandling and hanging out and playing and cars are stuck in traffic and are all kinds of things are going on.  Food trucks exist somewhere in between.

Why food trucks? Why now?

Food trucks have certainly taken Minneapolis and St Paul by storm over the last few years, their success exceeding almost everyone’s expectations. But what explains this change, happening at this moment in time? As I pointed out, it’s not like the concept of food being served from a mobile vehicle is anything new. It’s not like this is some sort of iPod innovation that revolutionizes the urban food service industry. So what explains the rocket-fueled success of the Twin Cities’ food trucks?

I can think of three possible answers.

People lining up for tater tots as if they’re the last thing on Earth.

First, food trucks redress Minneapolis and St Paul’s long-standing downtown vs. neighborhood imbalance. I always feel bad for anyone attending a conference in Minneapolis and staying in a downtown hotel. Why? Because very few of the Twin Cities places I love can be found there. Compared to all the wonderful little neighborhood corners, both downtowns are giant wastelands where interesting ideas go to die. (Quick, name your top 10 bars and restaurants in the Twin Cities? How many of them are downtown?) And apart from bit around Washington Avenue or near Cedar and Riverside, the entire U of MN campus is a chained-up Sahara. Tens of thousands of hungry people are trapped there every day forced to subsist on re-heated Poppa Johns and subjected to the faux-kitcsh wall hangings at Potbelly. They subsist almost entirely on tasteless crap from a SYSCO warehouse. For any Twin Cities visitor, in order to discover anything really amazing, you must escape the the corporate core, flee downtown, and abandon campus.

Or, thanks to the magic of petroleum powered food trucks, you can have the neighborhoods come to you! A good example is the Anchor Fish and Chips, which is a delicious chippie on 13th avenue in Northeast Minneapolis. It’s great food that makes people in Northeast Minneapolis happy and fat, but nobody working downtown is going to take the time (or go get their cars, un- and re-park them) to visit Northeast for lunch. So why not have 13th Avenue come to them? It sure beats the Nicollet Mall Panera.

The same holds for the Barrio truck or the 128 Café or the Ngon Bistro. In a way, these trucks are bringing the neighborhoods of the Twin Cities into downtown. They’re mobile billboards for the diversity of restaurants that make the Twin Cities great. Food trucks improve our mediocre skyway-laden anti-places  by injecting them with old streetcar shopcorners.

Second, food trucks are new business incubators. The reason why food trucks are so immensely popular with Twin Cities’ entrepreneurs is that they require vastly less overhead. Instead of taking out huge loans to lease and fix-up a business that will be tied down to one location location location, you can invest less money into a food truck, buy some paint, and come up with a nifty low-cost internet marketing campaign. Voilà! You have a new restaurant concept. Good luck to you.

A soon-to-be-food truck-inspired restaurant.

Food trucks are almost like a giant marketplace of embryonic restaurants, little incubators of future shops. Look at the diversity of trucks. Any one of them may become wildly popular and evolve into an actual bricks-and-mortar establishment. For example, the Smack Shack should be opening up their restaurant on Washington Avenue anytime now. Food trucks aren’t just competing with actual café buildings, they’re evolving into them. They’re like mini-restaurants, starter cafés, chrysalis bistros. Believers in the free market should embrace them.

Third, and most importantly, food trucks are something that takes place outside. Food trucks get people out into all the underused plazas, parks, and sidewalks of the Twin cities. They lure you into the fresh air, out of the cursed skyways and tunnels and into the bright rays of sunshine reality. They beckon you onto the picnic tables, to perch on sittable ledges, to find the shade of the maple trees. This has to be one of their chief attractions.

For too long, Minnesotans have been allowed to wallow in their agoraphobic meteorologic bubble, being scared by Sven Sundegaard and Mark Seele into thinking that it’s too cold or hot or windy or sunny or humid to open the door. We huddle in our skyways and our air-conditioning, squinting at the outside world that we are convinced will reject us like Mars in Total Recall.

Well screw that! Food trucks are the perfect excuse to liberate the be-bubbled masses. They’re a ‘Get Out of A/C Free’ card. In a way, walking to a food truck to buy an $8 taco is a subliminal excuse to break free of our climate-controlled cubes. And anything that can get people out of their buildings and their cars and into the parks, anything that can get butts perched along the riverbluff, well it’s good in my book.

Are there limits to the food truck phenomenon?

Should there be a limits to food trucks? Can they go too far? Or is there plenty of room for both trucks and bricks and mortar restaurants in the Twin Cities?

I don’t know the answer. After my visit to Portland Oregon last year, I was impressed by the huge variety of food trucks AND interesting local businesses. Maybe this is a case where urban space isn’t simply a zero sum game. Maybe the more we revitalize our public spaces, the more people enjoy spending time and money in the city, the more business there is to go around. I’d like to think that this is the kidn of addititve situation where everybody wins.

Maybe it’s a fad or maybe it’s the future. But I hope we don’t have to choose between food trucks and public spaces and having good cafés in actual buildings. Every time someone leaves the skyway system to grab lunch a  food truck on the sidewalk, the future of Minneapolis looks a little bit brighter.

A cluster of food trucks permanently parked in a surface parking lot in Southeast Portland.

 

A cluster of food trucks semi-permanently parked in a surface parking lot in downtown Portland.


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11 Responses to Are Food Trucks Good or Bad for the Twin Cities?

  1. Mike Hicks July 9, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    Fantastic article, Bill — I have many of the same feelings that you do, that the food trucks are filling in a missing gap. The incubator effect of the food trucks is pretty clear, even after just two or three years of popularity.

    And I don't think that the food trucks have really been let loose to their fullest extent yet. For the most part, they've been restricted to the downtowns, though there are occasional forays into other commercial districts (Saint Paul actually seems to be a bit more progressive about it than Minneapolis, but maybe that's just my perception).

    I haven't read much Jane Jacobs, but her observation that cities need cheap, old buildings to help serve that business incubation purpose sticks with me. I think it needs updating, though. — Really, cities need any type of cheap space that they can get in order for entrepreneurs to do their thing. If our zoning wasn't so restrictive, certainly many people would start up restaurants in their homes or a friend's garage or something. Food trucks just serve as the simplest legal outlet for that energy at the moment. And clearly, there are a variety of other businesses that would follow the same or similar escape route if the opportunity was there.

    Yeah, urbanism definitely isn't a zero-sum situation. Certainly some enterprises won't succeed (and nearly all will fail in the end, eventually), but very often we see positive feedback loops created that encourage more business and more diversity. When one goes down, there are two others to take its place.

  2. Julie K July 9, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    Food trucks also have a few other uses that I think have only just started to be explored. For instance, the Minnesota Stars FC, the local Division 2 pro soccer team, play out of the NSC in Blaine. They've been getting different food trucks to park in the "beer garden" during each game, which instantly expands the food selection at the game for the better. (Last week's games had Anchor at one, Rusty Taco at another.) It also, honestly, is better for facility owners in that many owners of such sporting facilities are NOT food purveyors. It's why food at that kind of event sucks so bad — they're once a week (at most) kitchens with limited revenue, so renting out management has to be done to mass glop-n-sloppers.

    It made me think, a little, of the debate a few years back where Minneapolis investigated putting a DQ in the Lake Harriet concessions spot, because the Park Board was unprofitable running an ice cream place there on their own. Which of course! Give the facility to someone who knows what they're doing! Win! There was a lot of opposition and it got shut down. (I remember one objection being that DQ would actually be good, so more would get sold, so more trash = do not approve. Which was kind of epic logic.) Food trucks can provide some flexibility for those kinds of venues, or for streetfairs and neighborhood events — the food quality is better than standard-issue carnival chow, and the trucks have a decent business model to sustain them.

  3. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg July 9, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Bill, I love the piece, but I'd put the conomic argument slightly ahead of using the public space. As fundamentally important as it is for food trucks to occupy public space and lure people out to enjoy it, I do believe the worthiness of food trucks as you put it, as "little incubators of future shops" is spot on. Food trucks give an entrepreneuer a lower-risk opportunity to test their idea. So, rather than sign a lease, open a restaurant and be out of business in six months, reinforcing the idea that no business can survive in that particular retail location, you've vetted your idea, made some money and now are looking for a permanent home. It is like a minor league farm system for restaurants!

  4. Daniel Olson July 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I suspect downtown Minneapolis food trucks have taken revenue from skyway lunch spots more than street-level restaurants. I'm not sure about the magnitude of the effect, but it would be interesting to see figures about business closures and skyway rents to see if the impact has been material. Ancedotely, the skyway food spots that have gone under have been quickly replaced. At least one skyway space was recently filled by a business that started as a food truck (Turkey To-go).

    From a consumer prospective food trucks are positive as they increase competition and offer quick food at decent prices. If a few uninspired brick-and-mortar lunch places are replaced by food trucks selling low-cost interesting food, its a win for consumers.

    You're of course right about their effects on the streets. It's great to see people venture outside at lunch. Marquette has gone from vacant to lively at lunch time. With active express bus stops in the morning and evening, crowds at lunch could even be a catalyst for new retail along Marquette. Even streets without food trucks have increased pedestrian traffic. If someone starts at the skyway level of their office building and walks to a skyway level lunch, it's unlikely they'll walk outside, even on a nice day. But if you're going to find a new food truck, you'll likely start on the street level.

    I agree with your economic point also. Food trucks have lower barriers to entry than brick-and-mortar restaurants. (Although, you could easily spend $100K getting one rolling). Loosening restrictions has given motivated and creative entrepreneurs a chance to compete with chain conglomerates that threaten us all with bland monotony.

    I'm not even sure the main criticism is true. Do food trucks undermine brick and mortar businesses? Sam's point that food trucks could act as a farm system for property tax paying restaurants is right on. Additionally, having a food truck near your restaurant could make your block look like lively and nudge people to venture up your street and discover your restaurant. People want to be where other people are. I agree that food trucks could instigate a critical mass of pedestrian activity that draws as many people for brick-and-mortar businesses as the food trucks themselves.

    I was at the city council meeting where they voted to start the food truck licensing on a trial basis. Some public speakers were restaurant owners who feared competition. (Notably the Loon Cafe owner who seems to squeal about everything that happens downtown). But some downtown restaurant owners spoke in favor of the change because they wanted an avenue to expand their business.

    Since the downsides are speculative and the upsides are transformative, I say the more food trucks the better!

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 10, 2012 at 7:18 am #

      The sooner the skyways are auctioned off for scrap, the happier I will be.

  5. Faith July 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Food trucks do take away some business from the skyway lunch places (at least in my case). The food trucks offer better tasting food, usually for a $1 or 2 more, and often with longer waiting times. I don't venture near the food trucks until after 12:45 since the lines are often 20+ people deep at noon. It's great to see Marquette active and full of people.

  6. minneapolisite July 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    As mentioned previously, food trucks fill a niche that doesn't necessarily compete with brick and mortar restaurants. Where I'd most like to see food trucks is on W Broadway: a street that needs an extra boost. Implementing an indoor space that is shared with a handful of food trucks would be great: it would provide variety, relief from the elements whether sweltering or chilling to the bone, and convenience by being available at a single location. It would also help break down that mental barrier locals have about North Mpls by familiarizing themselves with it.

  7. Alex July 10, 2012 at 4:36 am #

    I like the post, Bill, although I think in a society that has marginalized pedestrian transportation as much as we have, there is a better case for reserving the little remaining sidewalk space for moving.

    Good places downtown? I would argue that Gluek's and Eli's are two of only a handful of bars in the Twin Cities that actually have personality. The list of good, idiosyncratic, local restaurants Downtown is almost endless – Zen Box, Hell's Kitchen (though their new space is lacking in character their food is still great), Spoon River, The Creperie, even Brothers Deli in the skyway. Sure there is a lot of corporate crap, but there is at least as many good local purveyors of refreshment as any neighborhood.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 10, 2012 at 7:18 am #

      OK. I will have to go to Gluek's again, though I doubt anyone would agree w/ you about TC bars lacking personality. And you're right. There are a bunch of joints w/ good taste.

      • Alex July 10, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

        Twin Cities bars are at best warehouses for binge drinking and at worse reminiscent of spacious gas chambers. The best ones are from the 60s or earlier, because there was apparently a state law that required wood paneling in bars and breweries at the time were generous with mirrored and/or felted wall hanging merch. But those are almost all still far too large to be interesting. A bar must be approximately living room sized to be interesting. Most TC bars are table-based, and since Minnesotans go there that means no one talks to each other.

        Long story short, see you at Gluek's tonight.