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


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: