It's not easy to compare them, but we're giving it a shot.

A lot about the white-hot food truck industry might seem inherently greener. Trucks are smaller than restaurants, go directly to their customers, and often source local ingredients. But is buying your lunch from a truck really better for the environment than buying it from a bricks-and-mortar restaurant? Might it, in fact, be worse?

Pitting food trucks against bricks-and-mortar lunch spots on their relative greenness isn't a simple task. Food trucks tend to operate for only a few hours a day and focus on just one meal, while bricks-and-mortar locations generally offer a wider menu, stay open longer and can see several surges of customers throughout the day. Location and corresponding foot traffic also play a role, as trucks have the ability to drive — on-demand — to their customers, while traditional restaurants must rely on traffic from a set location.

Further complicating the comparison is that many cities require truck operators to prepare their food out of a commissary or approved shared kitchen facility. In Washington, D.C., for example, truck owner Che Ruddell-Tabisola of BBQ Bus cooks out of a catering kitchen in Alexandria, Virginia, which means he drives his truck to and from downtown D.C. each day.

Washington, D.C.'s Union Kitchen, a commissary used by Curbside Cupcakes and TaKorean food trucks. (Sara Johnson)

Perhaps the biggest eco-con for food trucks is the amount of off-the-grid fuel needed for both running the truck itself and powering the generator to run any on-board cooking equipment. But the degree of on-board power use can vary widely depending on the food served and what type of cooking is done on the truck itself. Kim Ima, owner of New York City's The Treats Truck, bakes all of her cookies, cupcakes, and other baked sweets in her bricks-and-mortar shop in Brooklyn, so her generator only needs to power a hand washing sink, lights, and the cash register on the truck itself.

There are other factors that contribute to environmental footprints that are shared by both standing and moving restaurants. To-go containers and corresponding trash, for instance.

As for bricks-and-mortar restaurants on their own, a 2011 report [PDF] on restaurant energy benchmarking by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory notes a variety of factors that influence their energy consumption:

Over the past 20 years, the typical floor plate size has changed (often shrinking), and the number of meals served at each store has increased. Hours of operation, operational practices, and the number and type of appliances also have a discernable influence on energy use. The authors’ experience has shown that the absence or presence of seating in conditioned space, location and customer traffic patterns, climate zone, absence or presence of automated control systems (time clocks, building energy management systems), facility type (stand-alone building, interior space in a larger building, etc.), type of walk-in refrigeration, and the amount of outside and parking lot lighting included in the utility bill are also factors.

Curbside Cupcakes (left) and Red Velvet Cupcakery (right), two Washington, D.C. cupcake businesses. (Sara Johnson)

For the simplest comparison possible (and just in time for Valentine's Day), we took a look at energy consumption and emissions at two Washington, D.C.-based cupcake purveyors: Curbside Cupcakes, a food truck, and the Penn Quarter location of Red Velvet Cupcakery, a storefront shop on Seventh Street NW. A few caveats to keep in mind for the sake of this exercise: First, we're only looking at numbers for one Curbside Cupcakes truck, not the truck plus energy use generated by its commissary, which would add to these emissions rates. Also, Red Velvet Cupcakery shares a kitchen with a sister business, frozen yogurt outlet Tangysweet, which makes it imprecise to separate emissions out from each other. Keep in mind too that Curbside Cupcakes works longer hours than the typical food truck, about 11-4 instead of 11-2, and often hits several stops in one day.

Our numbers on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are approximate comparisons. All consumption data has been sourced from the businesses themselves and online calculators. We used a few different resources to determine our estimates below:

  • The average cost of electricity per kilowatt in the Washington-Baltimore area in December 2012 was $0.120, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released this month.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, which calculates the amount of emissions from a given energy source (kilowatts, gallons of gasoline, etc.). According to this calculator, 1 gallon of gas is equal to 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, and 1 kilowatt-hours of electricity is equal to 1.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

First, we need to calculate the average number of cupcakes sold per hour open. Curbside is easy, as they are open for the same amount of time each day. Red Velvet is open an hour longer on the weekdays than the weekends, so we need to calculate total monthly hours open for the best comparison: 14 hours per weekday multiplied by 20 weekdays added to 13 hours per weekend day multiplied by 8 weekend days.

Curbside Cupcakes: 75 (each truck sells about 50-100 per day) cupcakes sold per weekday divided by 5 operational hours per weekday = 15 cupcakes sold per hour open

Red Velvet Cupcakery: 60,000 cupcakes per month (average about 15,000 cupcakes per week) divided by 384 operational hours per month = 156.25 cupcakes sold per hour open

We asked each company for their average energy costs per month. Red Velvet reported an average monthly electric bill of $3,000, while Curbside said it used 20 gallons of gasoline each week to power both the engine and the generator needed for a single food truck. Using the BLS figure for the average cost of electricity and the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, we can calculate a rough idea of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, per hour open:

Curbside: 1,568 pounds of monthly carbon dioxide equivalent emissions divided by 100 hours open per month = 15.68 pounds carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per hour open

Red Velvet: 38,887 pounds of monthly carbon dioxide equivalent emissions divided by 384 hours open per month = 101.27 pounds carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per hour open

And finally, the rate of emissions per cupcake:

Curbside: 15.68 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per hour open divided by 15 cupcakes sold per hour open = 1.05 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per cupcake

Red Velvet: 101.27 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per hour open divided by 156.25 cupcakes sold per hour open = 0.65 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per cupcake

The bricks-and-mortar version produces significantly more total greenhouse gas emissions than the food truck, but it serves more customers per hour open and thus is responsible for slightly fewer emissions per cupcake. If we were able to separate out Red Velvet's kitchen emissions from Tangysweet (as well as add in the emissions from their gas heating system) and include the emissions from the commissary in Curbside, this would only heighten the distinction for this comparison, as Red Velvet's denominator would increase and Curbside Cupcakes's numerator would increase. That said, since these figures are based on estimates and the numbers are so close, it's tough to make a definitive call.

Food trucks line up along D.C.'s Farragut Square, a popular lunchtime destination in the business district a few blocks from the White House. (Sara Johnson)

This what the business owners will tell you. Ask restaurateurs and truck owners and you get mixed responses: "It's hard to say...I would venture to say a brick and mortar uses more resources" or "I don't know if we are worse or better." A response to a reader letter in The Washington Post from 2010 concluded: "Indeed, there are so many other issues to consider that, without more studies, it seems impossible to say whether restaurants or street vendors have a distinct advantage."

There are of course a myriad of other factors that go into the environmental impact of restaurants and food trucks. As mentioned earlier, to-go containers and the corresponding trash is huge. San Francisco's Off the Grid food truck events require that all materials be recyclable or compostable. In Portland, a company called GO Box created a subscription-based lending program for reusable containers given out by street vendors. Robert Mytelka, CEO of Food Truck Franchise Group, says that he aims to serve food in food containers (think soup in a bread bowl) to minimize waste.

There are also substantial differences in business models. Larger volume naturally means more emissions. Restaurants have to have constant power running to some appliances like refrigerators and trucks shut off at night, although their commissaries would require similar constant power as the restaurant kitchen. Water consumption is a factor, too.

Roger Hedrick, senior engineer for the Architectural Energy Corporation and author of the restaurant benchmarking report, sums up the debate nicely. He says that the "big kicker" boils down to: is it more efficient for the food to go to where the people are or have the people go to where the food is?

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