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Tiny Food Trucks Are Mighty Disruptors

But can they escape the rumors of being unsafe?

By James McWilliams


(Photo: Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images)

Food trucks are a delicious disruptor. Brick-and-mortar establishments tremble for good reason as these renegade eateries dot American cities like hors d’oeuvres on a platter. A food truck is generally cheaper to run, produces less food waste, is more versatile with its menu options (some call them lean start-ups), and, most obviously, can pick up and move if the market grows stale (or rent increases). But this last move is rarely necessary. Unlike with regular restaurants, consumer demand for food trucks exceeds supply. Currently, we can’t get enough of them.

Given their built-in advantages, and given the existential threat food trucks pose to the precarious restaurant business, it’s perhaps no surprise that a backlash has ensued. Yelp provides a menu of shrill voices. There’s Rick G, who boldly announces: “Attention: I am coming out of the closet as a food truck hater.” He elaborates: “The cupcake trucks, the sandwich trucks, the gelato truck, the local/organic/fair trade/vegan/gluten/dairy free what have you mobile. It is NAUSEATING.” Christopher S. doesn’t like it when food truck patrons, evidently weaving and wobbling in culinary delight, “bump into me with your ice cream or dripping souvlaki mess or what-evs.” Others complain of the long lines. Not the most articulate backlash, but — even if it’s more Internet white noise than critical commentary — there it is.

The more legitimate threat to total food truck dominance comes not from a changing tide of public opinion, but rather from within the trucks themselves. Anyone who has ever been handed down grub from the altar of a food truck has probably (and properly) had a small crisis of faith: Is that nook of a kitchen back there appropriately sanitary? Is food prepared in the cramped well of a repurposed truck safe? After this succulent taco weakens my knees, will it turn my gut into a war zone? Good questions to ask.

Food carts are a gift to the curious and promiscuous eater. We need to encourage them to keep growing, as well as encourage appropriate levels of regulation.

The reason we harp on the cleanliness issue when it comes to food trucks is actually more complicated than it seems. Notably, according to one comprehensive study of food truck sanitation (by the Institute for Public Justice, a libertarian-leaning law firm), food trucks, when it came to sanitation, “did as well or better than restaurants.” But so what, right? Facts are just facts. Even if they do lead to the conclusion that “the notion that food trucks and carts are unsafe is simply a myth,” it’s perception that matters in the end. And on that score, the humble food truck faces challenges that most standard restaurants — with their kitchens out of sight and out of mind — don’t face. In this respect, they have a unique burden to overcome.

There are many possible reasons — even if they aren’t altogether rational — why we might be especially worried about the safety of food coming across the transom of a food truck. Because food trucks are exposed to the outdoors, we tend to associate them with whatever filth and exhaust might be around us. Because food trucks are not linked to municipal water supplies, we tend to think that, for all we know, they could be siphoning water from the creek out back. And because we actually see the cramped corner where a real person with real hands assembles our meal, and are then forced to step away and wait for our order rather than (as with exposed kitchens in brick-and-mortar establishments) keep a hawk-eye out for any chef stupid enough to touch his face, we are permitted to conjure up the worst scenario. The idea that a small kitchen run by two people might be infinitely easier to clean than a commercial kitchen requiring several food handoffs before landing a meal on your table typically goes unnoticed.

Recent developments in Chicago, where food trucks have been operating legally since 2012, haven’t helped diminish the sense that food trucks might pose a special sanitary challenge. First came a Mid-December investigative report in the Chicago Sun-Times showing that food trucks are inspected for health-code violations at a lower rate than restaurants in the city. Of course, this disparity is not in any way the fault of food truck owners, nor does it say anything about the comparative safety of food trucks. Still, the very nature of the report suggested that they were perhaps in greater need of code inspection. Reiterating this misperception was a December 18th follow-up editorial in the same paper. After summarizing the findings of the investigative report, it honed in on a photograph accompanying the original article. In it, a food truck chef is touching a burger with his bare hand — a no-no that you can be assured happens in hidden kitchens as well. “Goodness knows where that hand has been,” the piece editorialized. Sigh.

Food carts are a gift to the curious and promiscuous eater. We need to encourage them to keep growing, as well as encourage appropriate levels of regulation. As for the food carts themselves, consumers should take solace in the fact that a single kitchen managed by one or two employees who hand the food directly to the customer have a greater incentive to play it safe than a restaurant staff working around a commercial kitchen that’s hidden from view.