Monday, August 2, 2010


Road side vending of foods seems to be assuming different format lately, probably to offer lower coast foods with better taste profiles to consumers who are on the "go". The street vendors in many countries including India are "feared" by many consumers because of concern of getting infected with pathogenic bacteria. But in developed countries like the US some minimum standards are imposed to safeguard the health of the consumers who frequent such joints. The food truck "avatar" in the US appearing in many cities across the country seems to be taking roots as reflected by their popularity. Latest to join the rank is the City of Chicago where food trucks, also called Mobile Restaurants, are going to be licensed in a big way.

"At Wednesday's City Council meeting, Waguespack introduced an ordinance that would legalize mobile food trucks now prohibited in Chicago and establish strict operating conditions to ensure sanitation and avoid unfair competition with stationary restaurants. Mobile food trucks currently exist in the city, but they can only sell prepackaged foods. The proposed trucks would be required to have at least three sinks but could have no tables or benches. They would have to follow designated routes so the city would know where they are to conduct random inspections. They would have to be at least 200 feet away from a restaurant and 100 feet from any retail store that sells food. The annual license would range from $660 to $1,100, depending on the size of the truck. Waguespack envisions a thriving new industry that would enhance Chicago's reputation as one of the food capitals of the world. "If we have all of our bases covered in terms of health and sanitation, we could have 60 of these truck start up in the first year. We could create 500 to 600 jobs right off the bat with a $13.5 million payroll. That's how many people have called to say they're excited about it," he said. Waguespack said a would-be restaurant owner could purchase a truck for less than $100,000, a fraction of the cost of a brick-and-mortar restaurant".

"So far so good. But the ordinance also comes with limitations, and that is unfortunately where the rubber meets the road. Two are particularly important. First, the ordinance seems to contemplate that food trucks will follow a standard route day by day. This standard route would make it easy for a health inspector to drop in unannounced. Second, the proposed ordinance would require that food trucks stay at least 200 feet from restaurants. Both of these are bad rules. A fixed route would substantially limit the variety and serendipity that is the food truck. A food truck on the same route day after day is just a fancy version of the ice cream truck from our childhoods. We need health inspectors to be able to do random checks, but technology helps us here. Health inspectors can do what customers do: Get on Twitter and follow the tweets. After all, food trucks want to tell their customers where they can be found and that should make inspections a snap. And we could turn to GPS if we need to: Think LoJack for your cupcakes (or at least the cupcake trucks). Technology will make it possible to enforce the health rules and have both random inspections and random encounters with new foods. Then we get to the restaurant rule. Good politics makes for bad competition rules. We can't let existing competitors establish the rules of entry for newcomers. Competition is a good thing — higher quality and lower prices — not something to be squelched in the new ordinance. We don't insist that fixed location restaurants separate by some specified distance. Come to Hyde Park if you haven't recently and have lunch on 57th Street, where the restaurants are clustered side-by-side competing for customers".

Probably in their desperate effort to generate employment when the country is going through a lean patch, the US does not want to leave any area untapped and Mobile Restaurant concept is increasingly being thought of as an employment creator. The regulatory restrictions seem to be reasonable, at least for some time, since the working of the existing restaurants should not be put in jeopardy and hygiene and sanitation aspects are given priority. It is incredible that the city wants to become the food capital of the world through the mobile restaurant industry and probably they may even succeed considering that the investment involved is low compared to regular restaurants.


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