Unless you have been living under a rock, or north of West Palm Beach, you may have noticed the rise of the gourmet food truck scene in South Florida over the past two years. The popular rolling cafes are often credited with revitalizing underused land parcels and parking lots in many cities by holding weekly or monthly gatherings. As a food truck owner, I have a vested interest in seeing the movement progress, but as a professional eater, frequent diner, and friend of many in the local restaurant biz, I see both sides of the coin.
Recently, Sunrise commissioner Joey Scuotto proposed a ban on food trucks, citing his concerns for the well-being of the local brick-and-mortar establishments. (The trucks take business away from the standing restaurants, the argument goes.) A follow up meeting addressing the issue is scheduled for December 11th.
As a restaurateur, Mr. Scuotto knows what he is talking about when it comes to restaurant economics. There is a fear amongst many that if allowed, food trucks will set up shop next to existing joints and steal their customers. Jeff Werth, owner and operator of both the Kingshead Pub in Sunrise and the Kingshead food truck, suggests sensible mobile vending regulations, modeled after surrounding ordinances. "It is not the intention to affect brick and mortars," Werth says. "We should take what they already have on paper in Fort Lauderdale and other cities and go that route" in adopting new food truck regulations in Sunrise.
In West Palm Beach, for example, food trucks are prohibited from doing business in the downtown area, so as not to conflict with the restaurants paying property taxes. This approach promotes free enterprise, and allows food trucks plenty of room to roam.
"Property tax is one of the only things separating the costs of running small restaurants to [the costs of running] gourmet food trucks these days," adds Brett Chiavari, owner of the popular BC Tacos truck in Fort Lauderdale.
Although food trucks do not pay rent to a landlord, many are saddled with steep monthly payments with interest to pay off their small business loans and the trucks themselves. Like restaurants, food trucks must pay for insurance, payroll, worker's comp, and waste disposal, but unlike restaurants, they must also pay to warehouse the truck and for monthly rent to a commissary to store supplies, as required by the health department.
"These are local businesses that are just trying to get by waiting for the economy to improve, and it's important that we support them," says Chiavari.
When food truck owners decide to get into the game, they typically choose a home base and 1 or 2 other cities in which to acquire a permit to do business. They also have to purchase the yearly state and county occupational license; therefore it would not be profitable for a food truck to hold permits in every city. The fear that an ordinance would open the flood gates to every food truck from Miami to West Palm Beach is unfounded. The price of gas alone keeps many food trucks close to home.
South Florida cities may want to look at what New York City does, simply keeping a waiting list and only offering a few mobile vending permits per year. In response to the growing popularity of food trucks, Boston has reserved several parking spots throughout the city as "food truck" parking only. The early bird gets the worm (and gets to pay the meter), and keeps too many of the large gourmet trucks off of the famously narrow streets at the same time.
When I asked Brett Chiavari and Jeff Werth if they planned on attending the Sunrise commission meeting on December 11th, where the issue will be brought forth again, their response was the same. They weren't sure. To take time off to attend a lengthy meeting will not help their bottom line, and these days, every dollar helps. If these guys are not running the show, there is nobody to run it for them. Hopefully the city of Sunrise will agree that a ban on food trucks is not progressive, and look to other cities who have taken the lead on re-writing these dated ordinances to move forward in a sensible manner that everyone can agree on.
Aaron Merullo is the proprietor of the PS561 food truck.