Regulation

Food Trucks Go Mainstream, But Will They Make the Grade?

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Food trucks need customers. For many of L.A.'s newer entrants in the meals on wheels scene, this means building up Twitter followers—via prominently posted Twitter addresses on the sides of the trucks and other forms of advertising—and then pinging diners about their whereabouts regularly. While some trucks have regular routes, others prefer to cover new territory every day. Some of those trucks stay on the move, not because they crave a change of scenery or because they want to bring the gospel of kimchi tacos to a new neighborhood, but because they are forced to keep changing spots by hostile local restaurants or overzealous neighborhood cops.

Today, The New York Times covers the new regulatory regime about to fall on the heads of Los Angeles food truck owners, which includes health inspections identical to those undergone by restaurants, complete with letter grades, and mandatory filing of route maps:

Food trucks…will have to file route maps (route maps!) with the health department, to facilitate at least one field inspection a year, beyond the single annual inspection now required.

As with restaurants, health inspectors will be empowered to shut down a truck that scores less than a C for not enough attention to basic safety and food hygiene practices — for example, dirty counters, food left out, unwashed hands.

Because how could health inspectors possibly find trucks that broadcast their locations every day without a route map on file in a city basement somewhere?

While the food trucks previously joined together to fight new rules that would have limited where they could park and do business, they are mostly accepting the health inspection regime. Some have even found a way to see the bright side:

"It brings more legitimacy to an industry that is fairly new in the mainstream," said Matt Geller, vice president of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, which represents 86 food trucks.

But government veteran Gloria Molina, a member of the Board of Supervisors, knows better:

"Everyone is going to support it — until they get a B or a C," said Ms. Molina, who has previously battled with food truck owners over attempts to regulate them. "And then they are going to be opposed to it."

Here at Reason, we've written a lot about the ways that vested interests—community and local business associations, restaurants with multiple locations, and other longtimers—have shaped the system for their own benefit.

Be on the lookout for a followup story soon, in which hundreds of food trucks receive failing letter grades because of their inability to comply with rules written for bricks-and-mortar food establishments. Rules the health department will be unwilling to tweak to accommodate an new business model, probably on the tried-and-true justification that "if we make an exception for you, we'll have to make an exception for everyone."

Reason.tv took on the L.A. truck crackdown earlier this year:

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  1. “It brings more legitimacy to an industry that is fairly new in the mainstream,” said Matt Geller, vice president of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, which represents 86 food trucks.

    “It also rises the cost of entry for upstarting competitors, which is the real reason behind the regulations and not this phony concern about people’s health.”

    1. ding…ding…ding. We have a winner.

      It would be refreshing if he just said they wanted to limit entry into the market so they could remain profitable. My guess is the LA Supes would have bought that as well.

      1. It is a sad state of affairs when being “refreshing” is just telling the truth . . .

  2. “kimchi tacos”
    That reminds me of a Korean/Mexican girl I knewin Fresno…and I was gonna say someting, but I better not…

    1. please…………………………….continue……….

    2. I like Fresno . . . it is so “in the middle of nowhere, near nowhere important.”

      1. “They went to Fresno, esse.” I can never hear the word, without thinking of that line. I think they should officially change the name to “They Went To Fresno, Esse.” That would be awesome.

        Not quite as awesome as “Newcular Titties”, but close.

  3. Who do you trust, the LA government or these two?

    http://nomnomtruck.com/photos/…..07223.html

    Fuck you LA. Leave those chicks alone.

    1. I love the name: “Nom nom.”

      1. The were on the Food Network doing some kind of food truck contest. They almost won. My wife watched it. Then I started watching it because I thought the two Amerasian chicks in the Nom Nom truck were so hot. That kind of ruined it for my wife and she stopped watching it.

        1. The guy on that team was annoying. I loved the look on his face when he realized that the metal head hamburger guys won.

          1. He was annoying. I could never figure out what he did for them. The one girl did the cooking. The other girl was just unbelievably hot and would go out and round up business. But what did he do? I guess the women hired him because they figured three women would get catty and a straight guy would spend all of his time trying to bang them.

  4. the tried-and-true justification that “if we make an exception for you, we’ll have to make an exception for everyone.”

    Which you would think might prompt a little self-reflection on whether the regime itself is fundamentally flawed.

    But no.

    1. And by “an exception for everyone,” they mean free entry into the marketplace. And God knows they can’t let that happen.

      [rolls eyes]

    2. If only the same standard were applied to Obamacare. Seeing it in all its “glory” with no exceptions probably wouldn’t work well for it.

      1. But that’s vitally important healthcare. Here, we’re only talkin bout food, and it’s not like people need that to survive.

  5. Based on the recommendation of a cow-orker, I’ve been wanting to try poutine, the primary ingredient of which is, apparently, steaming hot awesomeness, but I haven’t. The only place in town that has it is a mobile food cart. I have no concerns about their food safety. The reason I haven’t tried it is, the retards who run this town have turned our downtown into a parking nightmare, and I can only force myself to go there a couple times a year. Assholes. If it’s half as good as I’ve heard, and they had a truck that could set up somewhere besides downtown, I would stalk them on the Interwebs.

    1. Poutines may be the only worthwhile things ever to come from Quebec.

    2. You haven’t lived until you tried cachete barbacoa tacos (slo-steamed beef cheek tacos), sprinkled with chopped onions, cilantro and green tomatillo&jalapeno; salsa.

      1. No warning to put up the drool shield? Thanks a lot OM.

  6. hundreds of food trucks receive failing letter grades because of their inability comply with rules written for bricks-and-mortar food establishments.

    By the time you get enough water (and a water heater) and a dishwasher on the truck to comply with regulations, there’s no room for the food.

    1. How else are you supposed to wash the papertowles and disposable cups/plates you serve your food on, huh, smart guy?!

  7. It’s kind of funny — food trucks would seem to be the sort of business that could most easily give LA the bird and pack up and leave. We’re starting to get more in cowtown, and I’d welcome any expatriate entrepreneurs from LA.

  8. Funny story… I was coming out of a movie at the Chinese walking up Hollywood Blvd. towards Highland about a year ago… And we walked by a little illegal Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog cart. This wasn’t a “truck”, mind you, but basically a woman with a tiny roller cart and a heating element with an aluminum pan full of cooking bacon & dogs.

    It was amazing… And it sparked a conversation about food-safety.

    One of my friends did the greatest thing ever right at that moment. As we’re walking up to the stand, he starts asking me how – in the absence of government regulations – anyone would know whether or not the food was safe to eat, and then when it was our turn to “order”, he saw the woman picking a dog with slightly less-cooked bacon, and asked her for another one which was clearly cooked better.

    I laughed.

    1. My answer is that we’d probably have unofficial voluntary food standards like the Kosher foods ones.

      Basically, if you’re a food producer, you buy a membership, have the group inspect you, and if you pass, you are entitled to put a copyrighted symbol on your packaging, paying a small royalty fee to the organization.

      Then, grocery stores deciding what to stock can look for foods that have passed inspection by one or more recognized food safety groups, and will tend not to stock those that have not. Also 100% voluntary market mechanisms at work.

      Small food producers can still get by with roadside stalls and farmers markets, or specialty markets that are willing to stock uncertified foodstuffs. When they make enough money, they can pay the fee and get inspected.

      Customers can look for the stamps and decide for themselves if they want to take the risk.

      And the voluntary organizations who are providing the food inspection service (paid for by the food producers, not taxpayers, to boot!) will have an incentive to make sure that their inspections are good, so they don’t lose their reputation and the credibility of their stamp or symbol, they lose their income.

      1. Disagree with the “royalty fee” part. The cost of membership should be based on your inspection needs. Larger kitchens (hotels?) or business with multiple locations/trucks would take more resources to inspect. The volume of food served seems irrelevant to the inspection process, so paying royalties on each sale seems inappropriate to me.

        Other than that, “yeah, what Hazel said!”

        1. Stuff like the optimal payment method isn’t ever worth arguing about in hypotheticals, is it?

          The whole point of a free market is that multiple options emerge and compete until an preferred arrangement is found – and sometimes that preferred arrangement is a plurality of simultaneous options, available to suit different individual needs. Royalty fee for some, per-inspection basis for others, one-time flat rate for others… who knows?

          1. Yeah, I’m thinking packaged goods would pay a royalty fee for having the trademark symbol on their packaging.

            While restaurants would probably pay per inspection and have a certificate posted on the wall.

            It’s very important that this NOT be a monopoly government service however, because the thing that makes it work is consumer trust and selection. If there’s only one game in town, consumers can’t patronize businesses that use a different (more trusted) food certification company, and the whole thing breaks down.

            Like “privatizing” the FDA would probably result in the FDA and industry just getting into bed with eachother. You have to have an alternative to the FDA to keep the FDA honest.

  9. “Everyone is going to support it ? until they get a B or a C,” said Ms. Molina, who has previously battled with food truck owners over attempts to regulate them. “And then they are going to be opposed to it.”

    Because they are going to be grading on a curve?

    How much do you want to bet that city health inspector do that, just to justify their existance. If they don’t fail X percent of businesses every year people might wonder why they have a job.

    1. +1

      I have argued this very point with people that don’t want to believe that inspectors have a GREAT INCENTIVE to find a fault in a business even if not a single one exists because, otherwise, their supervisors will not believe them.

  10. I’m just bummed that L.A. has all these great food trucks and we don’t have any around here. I wonder why not.

  11. Can a truck’s route map just be a map of the city?

    1. You still have to trace over all the roads with a sharpie/highlighter.

      1. That would be awesome!

        I’d love to turn in a completely blackened map of Los Angeles or New York and outer Borroughs.

        That would be the best.

  12. How many decades have the taco trucks been operating in LA? Hell, they were even called “roach coaches”. Now that they are serving good food and have become popular here comes the gubmint.

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