Why the great (Raleigh) food truck debate is bullshit
How popular are food trucks? Google the term, and you’ll get just over 27 MILLION results. In 0.16 seconds. The Food Network had a contest, and show about them. Durham has Only Burger, the first place I had a fried green tomato and pimento cheese burger (brilliant, in case you were wondering). Yeah, any reasonable person will tell you they are wildly popular, the new new thing, as evidenced by the selection of the shiny and earnest Tyler Florence as host of the Food Network show.
But food trucks are not popular everywhere, with everyone.
Today in Raleigh, there was a “hearing” of sorts on the advisability of food trucks downtown; apparently they are currently verboten. I read about it over at spoonfedraleigh, where there was a nice summary of the positions of people on both side of the issue. Since there didn’t appear to be an opportunity to comment over at spoonfed, I figured I would use my own blog to comment on the debate.
Because most of it is bullshit.
Here’s what’s legitimate: safety concerns. Pedestrian safety, diner safety, worker safety. But here’s the thing – we already have laws about all of those things. Trucks are currently not allowed to run over pedestrians. Food purveyors must comply with established standards that assure food safety, today. And last time I looked, OSHA still mandates conditions for workers. It doesn’t matter whether the restaurant is on wheels. Or not. If there is some aspect of current safety regulations that is inadequate because it did not anticipate mobile operators, then update it. But once again, this looks like a case, by and large, where existing regulation is up to the task.
What’s not legitimate are calls for protectionism.
Things change. All the time, in every industry. New products supersede old ones. Business models evolve to suit consumer preferences and leverage technology. If these weren’t facts, we would still be buying our music on wax cylinders instead of renting it for our Zune players. Change in business is as inevitable as the change of seasons.
And so is the resistance of the incumbents.
Cries of “Foul!” dominate the airwaves. “I have so much investment”, “The new guys aren’t following the old rules”, and “Somebody’s gonna get hurt if we let this newfangled stuff gain a toehold” are the same tired refrain heard from every dying entrenched operator, in every industry vertical, since the dawn of time. Scribes said it of printing press operators, I’m sure. Horse sellers used it to frighten early adopters of the automobile. And we all know the story of music, video and telecommunications in the last decade. Go see how crowded your local Blockbuster is these days, so you aren’t too surprised when you see the “For Lease” sign in the window (maybe we should ban streaming video?).
Food trucks are the new Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.
But make no mistake: in no case does the government have any business determining which products, operators, or business models succeed, try as they might. That’s the job of consumers.
At this point, you may be tempted to think I am a huge fan of food trucks. Or worse, an enemy of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
The truth is I’m neither. As a small business owner myself, I understand probably better than most the issues and emotions around this debate. But as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things”. And the facts are that both models in this debate are here to stay, even while some restaurants will fail, regardless of their mobility. And that the people who are deciding this issue are not the people who should be deciding this issue.
Most food trucks are bad restaurants on wheels. Most restaurants are bad restaurants on concrete. I generally favor a good meal of simple ingredients prepared with care in a mom-and-pop bistro setting. But I’m not opposed to a great taquito obtained on the side of the road. There is room for both in my world.
The choice is not (or should not be) up to politicians. It’s up to consumers.
It’s simple, really. If you don’t want food trucks, don’t buy food from them. If you want more bricks-n-sticks restaurants, patronize them. And in either case, persuade your friends to behave in the same way. Because the ones that stay will be the ones with customers, and vice versa.
But don’t let some pointy-headed bureaucrat decide what your options are, as a consumer or a business owner. Tell them to stick to their mandate, and assure the public safety. And then they are to get the hell out of the way.
The author is an owner of Muddy Dog Roasting Company, a boutique coffee roastery in Morrisville, NC. We are a brick-and-mortar establishment. We also sell our wares on the road. We compete with mega-corporations, and micro-operators in low-rent garage shops. Our customers can go many, many places to obtain substitute products. They choose us because the want to, and they can. I fear the day when that choice is removed from them. If you like great coffee from independent operators, and want to Stick it to the Man, please check us out: