Food trucks are a “thing” in trendy West Coast cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.
And Whitehorse is joining the craze.
The Economist magazine reports that there were around five food trucks per 100,000 people in Portland in 2016, and almost as many in Seattle and San Francisco. The food truck population has surged in recent years. All these cities mentioned had fewer than one food truck per 100,000 people a decade ago.
The figure for Whitehorse is 18 per 100,000, based on the five entrepreneurs who have already picked up their food truck licenses from our municipal government. The city policy limits the total to seven, and if the remaining two get picked up then our food truck intensity index will hit 25 food trucks per 100,000 people.
As fans of Whitehorse food trucks know, it’s fun to mix things up with some eclectic food truck fare. I attended a soccer match at the San Jose Earthquakes’ stadium, and the pre-game ritual was for fans to dine at one of several dozen food trucks pulled up in a semi-circle at one end of the field. The range of cuisines put your typical mall food court to shame, ranging from Korean barbeque to Sam’s Chowder House to almost anything you can imagine.
The food truck trend is an illustration of some classic conflicts between free markets and top-down planning. Planning officials in many cities long viewed food trucks as somewhere between a nuisance to a black-market threat to zoning regulations. Owners of traditional restaurants seldom liked the competition, and some preferred to beat food trucks in the municipal planning office rather than on the customer’s plate.
Compare Chicago to the cities mentioned above. According to The Economist, Chicago had just 70 food trucks in 2016 compared to 7,000 restaurants and 144 craft breweries. If Whitehorse had the same number of food trucks per person as Chicago, we would have less than a quarter of a truck.
But the trend is moving in the free market direction. Cities are realizing that they can attract residents and visitors with city centres that feel more organic and vibrant, and less rigidly planned. Portland’s informal motto is “Keep Portland weird.” For the West Coast cities competing to attract the talented and often urban-oriented young people needed for their tech and design industries, this is important, and food trucks are one part of it. The City of Whitehorse appears to be trying to find a balance. Food trucks are allowed, but in limited number. There is no shortage of regulations, but the city’s Mobile Food Vendor Pamphlet makes an attempt to be user-friendly. The city also encourages entrepreneurs to get into the business and compete with existing restaurants, saying it wants “to encourage and promote mobile food vending downtown” and that “Mobile food vending is a great way for people to try their business idea without the capital investment of a storefront.”
But while regulatory limits on food trucks may have been reduced, the law of supply and demand still applies. Having up to 25 food trucks per 100,000 people suggests competition may be fierce.
Furthermore, while food trucks often portray themselves as quirky and less buttoned-down than a corporate franchise, successful operators still need a robust business plan and a focus on operational efficiency.
The business plan is complicated with lots of choices. You have your location in Whitehorse, but also have to decide when to relocate to customer-rich music festivals and special events. You need a snappy brand plus a cuisine that attracts customers, but also that is quick and cost-effective to prepare. The pricing has to be right, high enough so you have a nice margin per unit but also low enough your customers will come back. You have fixed costs like the truck and permits, and have to figure out how many units you have to sell over the summer to make a profit.
Ingredients aren’t cheap and margins tend to be tight. Demand is spiky, with surges around lunch and special events. You can’t afford to lose a customer because your truck has a long line up or you’ve acquired a reputation for making customers wait. Ordering has to be quick and easy, overcoming kitchen noise and with limited options that confuse customers and cause delays. Preparing each serving needs to be fast. And payment needs to be handled quickly, not an easy task when cash customers need to get their nickels back after the GST calculations or other patrons can’t remember the PIN to their debit card.
To get an idea of how finely tuned this kind of operation can be, watch the movie The Founder. It charts the rise of McDonald’s, and there is an early scene where the McDonald brothers design the chain’s first restaurant by drawing their restaurant in chalk on a tennis court and making their staff pretend to go through their motions. They stand on ladders watching from above, and looking for opportunities for the fry guy to take one step fewer or the burger assembler to shave a few seconds off the routine of gathering the burgers, buns and condiments.
It can be a tough job. Fortunately, as customers, we can just enjoy the food, and wonder when those conservative slowpokes in Portland will catch up to us on the food truck intensity index.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.