The Best and Worst Cities for Operating a Food Truck
Over the past decade, food trucks have emerged as such a trendy part of foodie culture that we often overlook the fact that operating one isn’t as simple as throwing pierogis in the back of a station wagon. Food trucks face different regulations than brick-and-mortar restaurants, but these regulations can vary significantly from state to state and city to city. It’s a lot to keep track of. But now, a newly released index and report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has cleared up some of the confusion by ranking 20 major American cities based on how friendly they are for eateries on wheels.
The project, dubbed Food Truck Nation, has been billed as “the most comprehensive study ever conducted on local food truck regulations.” Its report begins by noting that, despite brining in an estimated $2.7 billion in revenue in 2017—“still a small portion of the nearly $799 billion in expected restaurant sales for 2017,” but “a sizable increase from its $650 million in revenue from just a few years prior, and relative nonexistence in 2008”—food truck operators face a lot of bureaucracy. In fact, on average, food truck operators face 45 government-mandated procedures per year leading to $28,276 in costs on permits, licenses, and other legal compliances. “Without a greater awareness of the regulatory speed bumps to mobile vending, the food truck industry may be needlessly slowed, limiting entrepreneurial opportunity and consumer choice,” the report says.
So where is the system working best for food trucks? Portland, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis are listed as the friendliest food truck cities, while Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Seattle are listed as the most difficult.
To be fair to these cities, running a food truck is a multifaceted operation, so the rankings are constructed from three categories—obtaining permits and licenses, complying with restrictions, and operating a food truck—and some cities are far stronger in one area than they are in others. For instance, though Boston finished dead last in “obtaining permits,” once you have a permit there, complying with restrictions isn’t so terrible: The city ranked 7th.
One other important note for cities across the U.S.: the report only looked at 20 places. (Houston, Austin, Los Angeles, New York City, Nashville, Raleigh, St. Louis, Chicago, Phoenix, and Columbus are the 10 cites that landed in the middle.) So just because your city isn’t on the list doesn’t mean it’s not a food truck haven.
But overall, the ranking is secondary to the report’s main mission: “providing useful information and national benchmarking for public and private sector leaders to understand and improve their local business environments for this dynamic sector of the economy.” Relatively speaking, the modern food truck industry is still in its infancy, and it’s important for cities across the US to consider what’s happening in other areas to see if they’re doing is what’s best for anyone aspiring to serve gourmet stroopwafels out of a converted van.