Young U.S. Food Trucks Hitting Road Bumps

Food truck pilot programs are hitting bumps in the road across the U.S., most recently in the cities of Columbus and Boulder.

Some blame a lack of communication between city officials and stakeholders for causing the programs to stall out; while others say the programs are a good start -- but have a long road ahead. Meanwhile, some cities are considering whether to add more regulatory-tape for the mobile kitchens, as brick-and-mortar restaurant owners complain about their upstart competitors.

Columbus Delays Pilot Program In Columbus, Ohio, the city council has delayed the launch of the food truck pilot program, as food truck owners and city council members continue to discuss rules and regulations for participants.

Brian Reed, the owner of the Mojo TaGo food truck and the president of the Central Ohio Food Truck Association (COFTA), says the pilot originally was set to launch June 1. The program would allow participants to park in 18 metered spaces and an undisclosed number of unmetered spaces in the city.

In addition to possessing the correct licenses and undergoing fire and health inspections, food trucks participating in the Columbus pilot program need to be shorter than 25-feet long to help with line of sight – which many food truck owners say prohibits participation. Reed says 40% of COFTA members own trucks longer than 25 feet.

Rosa Huff, the owner of the Swoop! food truck in Columbus, calls the length restriction “frustrating” and “very restrictive.” Her truck does not qualify for participation in the program. Huff says she feels the recommendations put forward by the COFTA were ignored, but Reed is hopeful ongoing discussions with the city will result in a more inclusive program.

However, only 11 food truck owners showed up two weeks ago for the inspections necessary for participation. Explaining poor attendance, Reed says the city didn’t give food trucks enough notice and didn’t take into consideration their schedule.

“The intentions were good, but timing was an issue … this is our busy time,” says Reed, who notes many food trucks had lucrative catering gigs booked for the Saturday inspection window.

While some estimates by the city place the number of food trucks in Columbus at 150, Reed believes there are only 50 or so mobile food trucks.

“Consumers want us, and that helps us more than anything,” says Tatoheads food truck owner Daniel McCarthy.

Boulder Program Off to a Rocky Start In Coloroado, communication issues have also affected Boulder’s pilot program, which launched June 1.

The program allows food trucks to set up in specific locations in neighborhood parks. There are also some late-night parking spots for participants in the downtown area, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night through the end of September.

But on the day of the program’s launch, no food trucks showed up at the park, says John Michael Sethney, the owner of Verde and Cheese Louise, two food trucks operating in Boulder.

“The overall idea is great,” says Sethney, but “there was no communication at the event and no schedule for the trucks.” He says he didn’t even know the city was expecting food trucks to appear at the park that day.

Sethney says the program can be a success – but only if the city understands how to make it worth the while for participants.

“If there’s a group of trucks, the hours are set and it’s a nice day, then it will be worth it for us,” says Sethney, who says he sustains his business thanks to private events, catering and operating at breweries on the weekends.

Molly Winter, who is the director of the Downtown and University Hill Management Division and helps oversee the program, supports the grouping of food trucks –referred to as “podding” – both in parks and in the downtown area.

“A little food will be good for late-night drinkers,” says Winter, who notes the pods will have police presence.

Winter says the need for more regulation comes from brick-and-mortar restaurant owners, who she says have “huge concerns” about equity.

“They have issues with a food truck pulling up in front of their restaurant, not paying rent or property tax, not paying into the business improvement district,” says Winter.

But despite the slow start, Winter says a recent meeting with stakeholders left everyone “very pleased” that there would be additional opportunities for food truck owners in the city.

Programs in Illinois Cruising Ahead In the Illinois cities of Chicago and Champaign, recent attempts at organizing food trucks have kicked into cruise control.

Gabriel Wiesen, the owner of Chicago food truck Beaver’s Coffee and Donuts, says the city has been relatively successful in “finding a balance between certain elements in the city that were apprehensive and a new emerging industry.”

Wiesen says a year-old ordinance allowing vendors to prepare food on the truck as well as designated parking is helping owners to “flourish.”

“Some of the regulation regarding mobile cooking was a little bit of overkill, but it was from a lack of understanding,” says Wiesen, who says open channels of communication have since improved the situation for food trucks.

“As long as they’re open to tweaking, the industry will continue to do quite well,” she says.

And in nearby Champaign, the year-old pilot program has only three current participants – but is already considered a success.

Rob Kowalski, the assistant planning director for the city of Champaign, says food truck owners use the program’s seven different locations to supplement the income made from working on private lots.

“The biggest issue is the tug of war between mobile and brick-and-mortar restaurants … they’re at arm’s length from the restaurants, but they’re still good spots for the trucks, who don’t want to be in some out-of-the-way corner that wouldn’t work for them,” says Kowalski.

Participant Jeremy Mandell, who owns the Cracked food truck, says the program is “going great” and the city has been responsive to food truck owners’ needs.

“They changed the parking limit from 2 to 4 hours, which was really helpful, and they changed one location due to construction,” says Mandell.