Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
A new study breaks down where the administrative hurdles to opening a restaurant on wheels are the worst.
The common image of modern gourmet food trucks may be one of hipsters serving upscale urbanites, but the reality is that the way food truck owners are treated by cities provides useful insight into the ease or difficulty of doing business in different kinds of places.
That’s a key insight of a new “Food Truck Index” published recently by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Inspired by the World Bank’s Doing Business project, the Food Truck Index covers food truck regulations in twenty of America’s largest cities. The Index covers three key criteria: obtaining permits and licenses, complying with restrictions, and operating a food truck. It does so by using data on fees, trips to government agencies, and the number and level of government procedures collected in part by surveying 288 food truck operators.
Not surprisingly, highly regulated, NIMBY cities like San Francisco, Washington D.C., Boston, and Seattle rank at the very bottom of the list as the most difficult places to operate a food truck. More surprisingly, Portland ranks as the best place to operate a food truck, with Denver, Philadelphia, Austin, L.A. and Nashville all in the top ten best places for food trucks along with Orlando, Indianapolis, and Houston—cities that generally have more business-friendly reputations.
But, there was some variation among the leaders and laggards on the three dimensions of the index.
Denver topped the list when it comes to ease of obtaining permits and licenses, with Portland falling to eighth place. The chart above shows the total cost in terms of fees, numbers of trips to government agencies, and the numbers of procedures food truck owners go through in the various cities. In Denver, for example, food truck operators need to make just 8 trips to licensing agencies, follow 10 procedures, and pay an average of $811 to get their trucks up and running; In Boston, on the other hand they must pay a whopping $17,066 on average in fees, make 22 trips to government agencies, and follow 32 procedures.
Philadelphia leads on the second dimension of the index, which covers complying with restrictions (such as proximity rules like the number of feet food truck must locate from a school), followed by Denver and Portland.
Portland takes the top spot for ease of operating a food truck. In Portland, food truck owners must pay an average of just $5,410 to operate their trucks, make 7 trips to city agencies and comply with 7 procedures; in Boston, they must dish out an average of $37,907, make 21 trips to city agencies and comply with 32 separate procedures.
Depending on how you look at it, the expansion of food trucks to include an array of more upscale fare is either a shining symbol of urban revival, or a looming indicator of runaway gentrification and escalating housing process. Either way, food trucks are a significant and rapidly growing part of the economy of cities. As of 2016, an estimated 3,700 food trucks roamed the streets of American cities, providing jobs for more than 13,000 people. The food truck industry grew at nearly 8 percent annually every year since 2011, topping $2.7 billion in revenue in 2017.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get started in the food truck business: Across the country, the aspiring chef who wants to launch a food truck faces an average of more than $28,000 in fees and must devote 37 business days going through hurdles. Generally speaking, these costs are the most onerous in expensive cities such as Boston, D.C., San Francisco, New York, and Seattle. But it’s not just expansive Sunbelt cities like Houston and Orlando that are good for food truck entrepreneurs: Portland, a city known for its urban growth boundary and commitment to environmentalism ranks as the nation’s least restrictive place to operate a food truck. It may be time for other cities to take a page from its book, food-wise. With its noted restaurant scene, superb craft beer, and coffee, it shows us that a vibrant food scene bolstered by flexible, entrepreneur-friendly regulation, at least for food trucks, can go along with quality urbanism and a commitment to green living.