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Food trucks enjoy unfair advantages as they scoop up lunch business

Food trucks have enjoyed booming popularity in the Twin Cities.

Regarding Marlys Harris’ article, “Amid complaints, chefs keep on [food] truckin,’ ” fairness is the issue that is causing the tension between food trucks and brick & mortar (B&M) restaurants.

When food trucks park in front of downtown office towers, they are using their location to hijack customers from B&M restaurants. If I have a T-shirt truck, and park at the entrance to the Mall of America, I will sell many T-shirts that would otherwise be sold by T-shirt vendors inside the Mall of America — that’s hijacking customers.

In addition to leveraging their location to hijack customers, food trucks have many other unfair advantages. B&M’s have to pay a portion of their sales for rent, property taxes, DID (Downtown Improvement District Fees), landlord’s CAM (common area maintenance), and landlord’s property insurance; food trucks pay none of these burdens.

It galls the B&M’s that we pay for police, fire, roads, sidewalks, city employees, pensions for retired government employees and other infrastructure that attracts employers to downtown, and now that that’s in place, the food trucks rush in and scoop up the summer lunch business.

Low overhead …

Trucks are a novelty, which helps their business. Minnesotans love to be outside, another advantage that dovetails nicely with the trucks’ locations in front of office towers. Trucks have low overhead (“rent” is plugging the meter, 3-person staff, limited hours), low operating expense, zero customer services (no bathrooms, no seating), and low capital cost.

Customers need to know that the city requires every restaurant to have a certified food manager on site — this is the person who is responsible for public health with the primary duty of preventing food-borne illness. Do food trucks have the obligation? No. When you patronize a food truck, your meal may or may not have been prepared under the auspices of a certified food manager.

Noise and air polluters

And what about the power generators? They are noise polluters as well as air polluters. It would be beneficial if every food truck were required to have an electrical plug-in at the site where they sell their lunches.

Bathrooms? B&M restaurants are required to provide them — why not trucks? Seating? It’s another advantage for the trucks because B&M’s generally choose to rent additional space to provide it.  

As a matter of fairness, I suggest that food trucks pay the city a “Food Truck Access Fee” of 10 percent of sales to compensate the city for providing the infrastructure in which the trucks are thriving. It’s not enough that they pay property tax on the sales at their B&M anchor (every truck is associated with a B&M ‘home’ location). The city needs to collect an access fee from the sales generated by the trucks — just as the state collects from the restaurants at the state fair.

Locate trucks off the sidewalks

In addition to paying a 10 percent fee on their sales, I suggest they we eliminate the damage to the sidewalks caused by trucks that park on the sidewalk (800 Nicollet, for example) and we eliminate the obstruction caused by the lineup of trucks on Marquette by locating the trucks in a nearby area, such as a parking lot.

Their food is good and their appeal is high, so asking them to locate in an area that’s not in front of our landlords’ buildings seems like a reasonable way to accommodate the trucks and apply fairness to the issue.

Doug Sams is the president and founder of D. Brian’s Deli & Catering, based in Minneapolis.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/19/2012 - 07:05 am.

    I love the variety of choices offered by the many food establishments downtown. My two personal favorites would be the Local (bricks and mortar) and the Smack Shack (food truck). This particular “food truck vendor” will soon be joining other “bricks and mortar” establishments with their very own venue. Smack Shack would appear to be a perfect example of “small” business trying to expand into the “bricks and mortar” community.

  2. Submitted by Richard Myrick on 07/19/2012 - 08:02 am.

    They are not your customers to “hijack”

    It’s sad that you and many other restaurant owners feel this way. Customers are not the property of any one business; they cannot be stolen — but they can be won.

    Have you thought that maybe the people that choose to eat from a truck have made that choice based on the fact that the trucks serve food that may be better than yours or provide service that may be better?

    You talk about those awful noisy generators…do you understand how much greener food trucks are compared to restaurants? How much electricity, water and gas does your restaurant use on a given day? I can assure you it is much more than any truck in your city.

    You speak a lot about fairness…how fair is it that you get to offer customers conditioned air in the hot summers or cold winters? How fair is it that you have a permanent location that customers can come back to if they choose to? How fair is it that you can offer walls, a ceiling, chairs and even offer reservations?

    See how silly the fairness argument seems?

    Food trucks are the fastest growing trend in the food service industry for a reason. People across the country want more food options and these culinary entrepreneurs are providing it for them.

    Instead of trying to get politicians to protect one business model over another, how about a long look in the mirror?

  3. Submitted by Jennifer Tonko on 07/19/2012 - 08:32 am.

    Innovate, don’t complain

    Mr. Sams, I’m sure many food trucks would love to have your advantages. You can be open 12 months of the year, you offer air-conditioning in this 90-degree heat, and yes, you even offer seating AND bathrooms! They’re not hijacking your customers–they’re out innovating you. Their taxes and regulations will catch up as needed. Open your own fleet of food trucks if the grass is really greener, otherwise, don’t take my delicious tacos away!

  4. Submitted by April King on 07/19/2012 - 08:57 am.

    Deyr takin’ ur jerbs!

    The two things I do agree in the article is requiring an electrical hookup, when possible, and requiring food manager certification. Diesel generators create a significant amount of air pollution, and it’s even worse in the hot, sticky summer months when the wind isn’t blowing. And ServSafe / Food Manager certification is quite cheap and only requires a single day of classes. Both would be welcome improvements.

    Other than that, I can’t help but agree with all the other commentators. If your food, service, or prices are so mediocre that you can’t tempt customers away with your wider selection of ingredients, air conditioning, shade, bathrooms, comfortable seating, or whatever, then you probably deserve to have you proverbial lunch eaten (ha!) by the local food trucks.

    Plenty of restaurants downtown are maintaining or increasing their customer base, because they simply provide a better product. But if your product isn’t good enough, then losing business is exactly what you’d expect with greater competition — whether it was mobile or not.

  5. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/19/2012 - 09:41 am.

    By the time I left Portland, Oregon, in 2003, there was a whole city block on the transit mall devoted to food trucks and street stalls. (It was still there when I visited in 2011.) These vendors offered among other things, home-style Mexican food, vegetarian Indian food, Vietnamese food, Korean food, Middle Eastern food, what Portlanders quaintly call “bento” (chicken skewers on rice–“bento” is actually the Japanese word for any packed-up meal) and even made-to-order hamburgers and shakes better than anything at a fast food place. None had more than half a dozen menu items.

    In my observation, they served downtown workers who had short lunch breaks and/or low incomes, those who wanted to sample types of food not offered in the sit-down restaurants, and those who simply wanted to eat outside on a sunny day.

    Non-affluent workers can’t spend $10-$20 for lunch five days a week. Before the food trucks came, their alternatives were fast food or the monotony of a sack lunch. If they can spend the same amount of money as they would at a fast food outlet and buy a more nutritious lunch, that’s a good thing.

    • Submitted by Susan McNerney on 07/19/2012 - 11:46 am.

      It does seem that those who want the trucks to go away

      need to provide examples of cities where the trucks have caused serious problems. NYC has a lot of them, Portland as this commenter mentioned does as well, and many other cities have had food truck cultures for a while. What went wrong? There could be some lessons to learn there.

      But I don’t think they’re going away. When I worked downtown a few years ago, I would have killed for a food truck. I didn’t have time for a sit down meal, and I don’t like traditional fast food. Some days the lines in places like the IBS center for a sandwich at Potbelly were crazy. There’s clearly room for some more low-end lunch options out there.

  6. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 07/19/2012 - 10:03 am.

    Mr Sams or Ms Harris is getting their facts wrong– Sams claims that trucks have no obligation to have a certified food manager on site. Harris says otherwise in her article.

    A quick google search finds the food truck application form (here: http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@regservices/documents/webcontent/convert_258549.pdf)
    where on page 6 of 11, item 6 of required items reads: “Copy of the current MDH Food Manager Certification”

    This whole essay seems like sour grapes, and when you then start throwing in lies about certification, implying that customers are risking their health by going to these places, that’s pretty low. If someone published an essay falsely accusing “D. Brian’s Deli & Catering” of not having a certified food manager on staff, I bet Mr Sams would be pretty upset.

  7. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/19/2012 - 10:18 am.

    Competition

    Mr. Sams, when I buy food at a truck, I’m there because it’s something different or interesting. That’s where the real competition lies: offering the customer something they want, or something new.

    There are at least twenty places downtown where I can get a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat with a pickle spear. Frankly, I’m not interested in that–I can make that myself at home, cheaper. Sell me something I can’t get elsewhere, and I might take another look.

  8. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 07/19/2012 - 11:26 am.

    I’m somewhat sympathetic, but…

    I think it is true that the trucks should have to plug in, not block existing businesses, have a food manager, and that their licensing fees should cover DID expenses and some of the cost of public restrooms. And doing this would probably raise their prices a bit.

    But another issue is that B&M food is either dull, or too fussy and expensive for lunch. I crave for lunch somehing fast, somewhat but not unreasonably cheap, and most importantly, interesting. And it seems only the food trucks are delivering this. It’s hard to get excited about chicken ceasar salad when there are trucks selling lobster rolls and asian-african infuisan.

  9. Submitted by David Greene on 07/19/2012 - 11:59 am.

    D. Brian’s

    Mr. Sams, you had better attend to your own restaurant first.

    I used to patronize both of your St. Paul locations. I’ve since stopped, as has the lunch group with which I share the noon hour. There are very few food trucks here to compete with you. We don’t usually go to them, either.

    So why did we stop going to D. Brian’s?

    – Terribly rude staff
    – Super long checkout lines with ONE cashier
    – Mediocre diner food (the salads are pretty good, I guess)
    – Expensive prices given the quality

    There aren’t even that many good lunch spots in downtown St. Paul. But they are better than your restaurant. Please take a hard look at your own organization. Thanks.

  10. Submitted by Benjamin Riggs on 07/19/2012 - 12:42 pm.

    Fairness? Let’s talk about skyways.

    Mr. Sams, you seem to have 6 of your 10 locations (100% of your locations in either downtown) located in the skyways, a system designed to funnel middle-class workers past your establishments. Your businesses inhabit what are, I’d argue, the most privileged, sheltered, & targeted retail spaces in the state. Food trucks have to convince customers to venture outside of the skyway bubble and find them on the street.

    If your business had a street-level storefront, and if food trucks were parking directly in front of your storefront, and if you let their customers use your amenities, and if customers had to venture out of their way to find your restaurants, your arguments might have some merit.

    As things stand, you’re unhappy because you have new competition.

  11. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 07/19/2012 - 04:24 pm.

    In other words, the author sees competitors who are leveraging advantages and he wants local governments to tax and regulate them away so he can have things the way they were before. Good luck with that.

  12. Submitted by Lance Groth on 07/19/2012 - 06:16 pm.

    Capitalism Sucks, eh?

    I have to agree with the other commenters – the food trucks simply represent competition that is a normal part of capitalism. A paradigm shift of sorts, perhaps (not to sound too overly dramatic), in the restaurant biz. The complaints from the B&M establishments sound just like the complaints B&M stores made when internet sales first hit the scene.

    I hate to sound harsh, but – adapt or die. Ever hear the song “Boom Like That” by Mark Knopfler? It’s about how Ray Kroc bought a little one-off burger joint called McDonald’s and turned it into an empire. When the previous owners opened a new place in town, Kroc built a McD’s right across the street and drove them out of business:

    “sometimes you gotta be an s.o.b.
    you wanna make a dream reality
    competition? send ‘em south
    if they’re gonna drown
    put a hose in their mouth”

    So compete. Get your own food trucks. Amp up your service, cut the wait, cut the cost, come up with something new, whatever. I don’t think whining about government intervention is going to cut it.

    And BTW, lunch is getting pretty expensive in general. It’s hard to get by for much less than $20 in a sit-down restaurant any more. Times are tough and people are on short lunch breaks. They don’t want to spend that much and they are in a hurry. Hence the appeal of food trucks.

  13. Submitted by William Lindeke on 07/20/2012 - 08:36 am.

    skyways

    I’m in complete agreement w/ Ben about the skyways! Cities shouldn’t be shopping malls.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 07/20/2012 - 09:19 am.

      Skyways = shopping malls?

      I’m not sure that’s altogether correct, but I suppose I can see the parallel.

      That being said, we live in the frozen north. It’s frozen much of the year. The food trucks really only have a way to make money downtown in the part that’s not frozen. I happen to work downtown and I really, really don’t like to be frozen. If skyways make downtown a shopping mall, take me to the mall!

      As for D. Brians, I only eat it when it gets brought in to work. Otherwise, the reason the food trucks compete is not because they have an unfair advantage, but because many of them have better food at at least a competitive price.

      On one hand, business owners will shout and complain when the government “interferes” with their business (and individual profit), they’ll claim that they made it on their own, thank you very much. On the other hand, when someone does things better in a non-traditional way, they’ll shout and complain that it’s unfair, and oh, won’t someone do something about the advantage they have over my business?

      The food trucks don’t exist because of a legislated advantage (they still have to have safe food and pay the appropriate taxes, fees, etc.). They exist because they have a business model that works for them, and a product that people want. Reasonable capitalism SHOULD work that way.

  14. Submitted by Brian Rhea on 07/21/2012 - 09:20 am.

    Thanks Doug Sams

    Thanks for writing your article. Now our city officials can now read your article and the included reader comments and come to the clear conclusion that the residents and taxpayers of Minneapolis WANT food trucks.

  15. Submitted by Wayne Dziubinski on 07/21/2012 - 04:45 pm.

    Bumper to Bumper congestion – Street and Sidewalk

    I own the FASTSIGNS at 733 Marquette Ave. I have been in this location for 18 years. My ONLY issue with the food trucks is the congestion they cause when an armada of trucks park on Marquette between 7th and 8th, from 9 a.m. to almost 2 p.m. every day. On a light day seven or eight trucks may be on this block. On busy days eleven trucks is not uncommon.

    The congestion comes in two forms. (1) There are none or very few places for anybody else to park who may want to conveniently patronize non-motorized businesses, mine or any other. (2) The sidewalk congestion that this density of food trucks draws makes the sidewalk impassible or almost impassible for long stretches of the late morning or early afternoon. The original MINN-Post article on this subject contained a couple of pictures that show this.

    Not a day goes by when one of my customers, a courier driver or a delivery truck driver doesn’t complain, sometimes using language that wouldn’t be heard in church, to my staff or I about the parking and/or sidewalk congestion.

    As a small business owner I understand the entrepreneurial drive that motivates the owners of these trucks. But, seven to eleven trucks parked per day between 7th and 8th for five hours per day has taken a serious toll on my business. I would have no problem, and would in fact welcome 2-3 trucks on this stretch of Marquette.

  16. Submitted by H. Gillich on 07/22/2012 - 06:54 am.

    A fix?

    Agree that the uncontrolled food trucks (UFTs) are not going away. Agree also that some of the UFTs have good food. Not cheap though. In their own uncontrolled enviroment, do they really need to charge those types of prices for what they are serving? But it’s a fad. When the downtown customers get tired of eating the State Fair type food provided by the UFTs every day, where will they turn? By that time, a good portion of the mid sized B&M downtown restaurants will have gone away. And try calling the UFTs in the middle of the winter! They will be resting in their vacation homes somewhere south reaping the benifits of working their three hour shifts during the months of April through September.
    There are some really good and unique fast food restaurants in the skyway system.You just need to walk to find some of them. And you can bet that those restaurants are controlled. Very controlled!!
    Why not spread out the UFTs and create a more fair playing field? It seems like that is one of the things that the B&Ms are asking for. Thus creating more of an equal playing field from which to compete. In addition, why are sixteen of the uncontrolled mobile vedors allowed to set up shop in a two block area creating thier own uncontrolled food court? And it seems like it’s the same UFT vendors every day? I know that there are other UFT vendors out there that would like to take some of those prime street spaces. What about them? Maybe they should be able to serve some of their uncontrolled food too! Have we begun our own mafia driven UFTs? It would be nice to hear from some of the UFTs that would like to sell thier uncontrolled food from their UFT at the newly created curbside FC (food court)!!!!

  17. Submitted by Charlie Wren on 07/22/2012 - 08:11 pm.

    An RV in Front of Your House?

    I am from Manhattan, and visit there several times a year. I have NEVER seen a proliferation of Food Trucks like the one on Marquette Ave. At most, I see four per block and when I say block I mean an entire city block composed of four sides–one food truck on each side, i.e. one on 8th Avenue, one on 9th Avenue, one on 23rd St. and one on 22nd Street.

    I never eat from a food truck because I value my digestive system. : )

    That being said, I get the charm of them. I understand the festive atmosphere of them.

    However, when they are propane tank to propane tank lined up on a street, the positive atmosphere disappears. And when not just restaurants but, for example, FAST SIGNS (as mentioned in a post above), are affected to the point of delivery drivers, and couriers having problems, not to say customers who can’t find a parking space in front of a business like FAST SIGNS, there is a problem. It interferes with ALL business on the street level–not just restaurants.

    And that is an issue.

    Perhaps the point is better made with a analogy a lot of us can relate to. As a homeowner, I pay six THOUSAND dollars in property taxes each year. With that I get various other assessment like sewer, etc. (BTW, I live in a very modest house. My assessed value is just over 300, 000–very low for a city dwelling).

    Now imagine that an RV parks in front of my house from 6 a.m. to 12 midnight every day. That would be a nuisance. But with just one, I could park in front of my neighbors. Let’s go further and imagine that an R.V. parked in front of EVERY house on my block. Bumper to Bumper R.V.’s. This way, I have no way to park in front of my house and all the taxes I pay, go to repairing the road that I can’t even use to park my car on, On top of that, lets just assume that these are very polite and responsible RV owners, but their visitors are not. Then, I have to pick up or pay to have the trash removed that they leave behind. In addition, anyone who wants to visit me and my family, has to park blocks away and walk to my house. Finally, all the comings and goings of the people in the R.V.’s make it difficult for me to even sit, walk or otherwise traverse the area right in front of my house.

    Sound Fair?

    There IS a fairness argument here.

    Also, judging from the picture posted with the original MInnPost Article, I wouldn’t go NEAR Marquette, no matter how delicious the food. If even one of those food trucks had a fire, emergency personnel would be hard-pressed to get through the traffic to deal with it.

    One per block is enough–for street maintenance reasons, for safety reasons, for aesthetic reasons.

    Because if the B/M businesses are forced out, the property value goes down, the property tax goes down–but the city spending doesn’t. People who think it is fair now, won’t agree so much when THEIR taxes go up to cover the difference.

  18. Submitted by John Sutton on 09/04/2012 - 01:06 pm.

    Food Trucks have unfair advantage?

    My experience is, the only thing that hurts any restaurant and will put them out of business is:
    1) Poor Business Model
    2) Poor Food
    3) Poor Service
    Food Trucks and other competing restaurants do not put other restaurants out of business. If a brick and mortar establishment believes he will be better served and have a stronger business via a food truck then he should invest in a food truck. Not try and stifle competition.

  19. Submitted by Sally Warlick on 08/12/2015 - 02:16 pm.

    World Street Kitchen Food Truck

    The truck located on 28th and Lyndale is a nusinance to residents in this area since it is parked directly against the building and emits gases into the environment when it is plugged into whatever it plugs into.. Odors are sometimes “foul” and the truck is a monstrosity. The top of the truck has oil or something leaking from personal observation looking down on it from my window. They may have great food but the truck needs to go somewhere else.

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