Falling Out of Love with Food Trucks

Food trucks were the darlings of the food world.
They rolled their cheap and casual fare into the heart of the recession. They had the good food sense to swap steam tray hot dogs for trendy dishes like red velvet cupcakes and Korean pork belly tacos, and the tech savvy to tweet out their locations and daily specials.

In a few short years food trucks became a full-fledged culinary phenomenon. Now they fan out each morning arranging themselves on sidewalks, street corners, and parking lots, transforming the face of public spaces in urban centers from coast-to-coast. They’re in demand to make scheduled appearances at farmers markets and street fairs, they’re hired to cater weddings and bar mitzvahs. There are food truck competitions and festivals, Zagat guidebook ratings and cookbooks, and they have their own Food Network show.

Is the food truck phenomenon just another pop culture moment?
In this fast and fickle culture of ours the pendulum already seems to be swinging away from food trucks. The food cognoscenti complain that they’ve become eye-rollingly common, their quality diluted by less inventive latecomers drawn to the hype. Others gripe that the prices mirror those found in bricks-and-mortar restaurants despite the lack of customer amenities and the operators’ lower overhead. Then there’s the existential question of a food truck as a destination.

There is mounting evidence of a food truck backlash.
Cities have responded to their proliferation with skepticism or even hostility as municipal governments balance mobile vending with the demands of community, permanent business owners, and traffic patterns. New York evokes an obscure parking rule to kick food trucks out of metered parking spaces, while Washington D.C. issues tickets if they idle without a waiting line of customers. Oakland, Atlanta, and Chicago all have exclusion zones protecting traditional food businesses from what they decry as unfair competition, and San Francisco banishes the trucks from a 2-block ring around school entrances to keep temptation from undermining school nutrition programs.

Health messages, onerous regulations, a crazy quilt of protected real estate, and restaurants crying ‘foul’—it’s all too much for some fledgling operators. In an abrupt turnaround for a business that was so recently was busting at the seams with eager new entrants, food truck associations are reporting members’ revenues dropping by as much as 70%, and you’ll find plenty of used food trucks at fire sale prices on Craigslist.

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