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Understanding the food truck phenomenon

By: Stephen Deal / Published: Nov 21,  2018

As many Americans prepare to chomp down on turkey and buy that can of cranberry sauce, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the planning and policies surrounding local food.

One facet of local food policy that has gained increased attention over the years is the issue of food trucks. Though food trucks have generally been perceived as a culinary novelty aimed at young, urban professionals, the idea of a diner on wheels has quickly expanded across the nation and includes smaller markets as well.

Here along the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf Coast, food trucks are starting to make a ripple in local communities. Just this month, the city of Ocean Springs welcomed its first food truck called True Wings, a food operation specializing in chicken wings.

As urban development evolves and changes, so do the policies and regulations that manage development, and the growth of the food truck industry is no different in this regard. Coastal communities, with their high influx of seasonal visitors, will certainly be viewed as logical partners for future food truck operations, so it is imperative coastal communities craft local plans and ordinances, which help shape future interactions with food truck operators.

Food trucks line the public spaces of Destin's Harborwalk Village.
Food trucks line the public spaces of Destin's Harborwalk Village.

One example of a coastal community that has taken major strides in addressing the food truck trend is the city of Saint Marys, located in Georgia. Just recently the city enacted a “mobile food services and vendors” ordinance, which regulates food truck activity inside the city.

One useful aspect of the ordinance is that it provides valuable oversight on the scale and size of food truck operations. The ordinance delineates two categories of mobile vending: food trailers and food trucks. A food trailer is a movable cart that can be hitched to a truck for transport and can be no larger than 20 x 10 feet and no taller than 12 feet in height. The category food truck encompasses all mobile food units with the exception of pushcarts and trailers and the maximum size for a food truck is 30 x 10 feet.

Another element of the Saint Marys ordinance is the designation of mobile vending zones. In the ordinance, food truck operation is restricted to two neighborhoods: downtown and midtown. The idea of mobile vending zones is not unique to Saint Marys though as many cities have opted to carve out zones where food trucks activity is allowed.

Major cities, which have enacted or are looking to enact mobile vending zones, include places like Nashville and Washington, D.C. Since many brick-and-mortar restaurants have concerns about food truck operations siphoning away potential customers, a food truck zone is a good technique for evaluating food trucks on a trial basis.

While a food truck may be less than ideal in a busy shopping corridor adjacent to other brick-and-mortar restaurants, a food truck may be useful in a struggling downtown or urban neighborhood where a quick injection of economic activity would be a welcome development.

It should also be noted that since food trucks are highly mobile, they may be useful in providing a modicum of commercial activity in flood-prone neighborhoods where elevation requirements may be a considerable impediment to permanent business operations. However, the benefits of the food truck concept need to be weighed against potential downsides, such as the affect food trucks may have on the operation of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

By implementing basic rules for mobile vending and by evaluating the economic impacts of food trucks, city governments can get a firm grasp on this issue and anticipate some of the potential land-use conflicts and concerns before they occur.    

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