Every year a different US city plays host to the American Planning Association’s annual conference where thousands of planners come from around the country, Canada, and further afield to learn about the most recent trends and practices in planning cities. This year it was held in Los Angeles, and for anyone interested in food policy and street vending it was exciting that this year there were two dedicated events on street food.
Both of these events were filled to capacity by policy makers, planners, and city officials from all over who recognized the surge in public support for street food and the need to reconcile this with often complex regulatory systems.
The first event was a led by Alfonso Morales, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, who has been researching street food for many years. With about a hundred people crowded standing-room-only in a small conference room, he began with an anecdote on how street food vendors have been weaving cultures together for centuries. In medieval cities kings would allow food vendors to have the privilege of crossing territorial boundaries to sell their food to other kings and thus introduce different cultural fare. Vending has had its peaks and valleys since then – falling in and out of public and political favour. Today, while vendors enjoy much public support, there are a number of myths that surround the business and contribute to the perpetuation of complex, often outdated regulations that limit the practice.
Morales went on to address some of the myths around vending*. While he spoke from an American perspective I recognized similar challenges to street food vending coming from Toronto: that vendors avoid paying taxes; that they are a danger to public health and safety; and that they unfairly compete with brick-and-mortar businesses.
First the notion that vendors don’t pay taxes: He made the point that while many people avoid paying taxes, this is often not the case with vendors. In fact vendors who aspire to owning a brick-and-mortar business in the future actually need to provide proof of profitability for future credit and so have no choice but to demonstrate their ability to pay taxes.
Second, the spectre of public health and safety: He made the point that food vending actually addresses three of the biggest public health issues today: 1) the public health problems of obesity and food deserts and the importance of providing culturally relevant produce to diverse populations; 2) growing interest in organic and especially local food makes street vendors increasingly important in supplying demand; 3) the need to diversify food distribution systems and make them capable of filling niches beyond that occupied by the contemporary grocery store. And in terms of food-borne pathogens, food vendors are often subjected to more inspections than brick-and-mortar businesses . You could even add that the very nature of vendors cooking and serving food right in front of their customers provides further transparency.
In terms of public safety, there is no shortage of revered urbanists who speak to the role that vendors play in keeping streets safe. Vendors are to Jane Jacobs the ‘public characters’ who provide ‘eyes on the street’ and William H Whyte has described how their presence draws activity out onto the streets. In an extreme example it was street food vendors in Times Square who alerted police to a suspicious vehicle that was emitting smoke and thus ended up foiling a bomb attack in 2010.
In terms of unfair competition with brick-and-mortar businesses, he noted that most local businesses feel threatened by vendors but once they see the foot traffic and life they bring they are grateful. He supplied us with research that evaluates the notion of unfair competition, which underlines the point that they are very different practices than brick-and-mortar businesses. There is limited, if any seating near the stand; the choice of food is much narrower; there aren’t amenities like washrooms to service customers; and there is no weather protection.
The second event was a mobile food truck workshop where we, the (very hungry) participants, boarded a bus and were taken across the city to visit three different food trucks. A city planner, a council representative, and the owner of a gourmet grilled cheese truck led the tour.
First, we headed to East LA to visit a luncherro. Luncherro is spanglish for food truck or taco truck. These are the classic trucks in LA originally begun in the 1950s and 60s to service the construction boom. At the time they were quite mobile, serving up lunch to service workers at different construction sites. When the construction boom ended trucks became more sedentary like a brick-and-mortar business. Now rather than move from place to place the trucks rely on community ties established from staying in one spot. Trucks need to go to approved commissaries or ‘truck lots’ every twenty-four hours and then they can return to business on the streets.
We lined up in a procession of about thirty people to get our hearty meal of three different kinds of tacos, rice, refried beans, and salad, which was delicious and invoked many sounds of pleasure up and down the bus aisle.
Next we headed over to a gourmet truck ‘meet-up’, where food trucks gather in one spot for a dedicated period of time. Gourmet trucks are a new type of food truck that has come onto the street in recent years. The main difference between gourmet trucks and luncherros is that luncherros tend to be sedentary and long-established in the community whereas gourmet trucks move around and use social media to rally their customers. The mobility of gourmet trucks is less a marketing ploy and more a necessity in response to a regulation that a food truck can only vend in one spot for one hour, unless they have access to a washroom. So, food trucks either need to partner with a store or institution that has a washroom or else they need to keep moving. Social media has been invaluable in providing customers. One of the first gourmet food trucks was The Grilled Cheese. The Grilled Cheese has over 80,000 followers on Twitter waiting to get notification of their next vending spot.
The food truck meet-up we went to was a good example of partnering with an institution (in this case a school). The meet-up happened every Saturday in the school’s parking lot, which wasn’t in use on the weekends. We entered the parking lot and were greeted by a rally of trucks selling everything from hamburgers and tacos to ice cream sandwiches and bubble tea. The trucks formed a ring and in the middle were a series of picnic benches packed with people. We had three tickets to use at vendors of our choice. I strategically went for the ice cream sandwich (ice cream slathered in between two fresh baked cookies) from Cool Haus and capped it off with a bubble tea. The Cool Haus truck used giant magnets on its metal siding to advertise what flavours were in store that day and also to advertise that it was a part of an open-air society that hosted evening events of food trucks, movies, and live music.
Our last stop was an example of a food truck partnering with a brick-and-mortar business in Silver Lake. The partnership provided cross-promotion and assured the necessary washroom facility. The partnering store, Silver Lake Wines, offered wine tastings and so you could bring your food from the truck into the store and enjoy some tapas while tasting wine. And it worked, I bought a bottle of red.
The problem that the food trucks are facing is that within LA County there are some 88 municipalities that all have slightly different regulations for mobile vending vehicles: some ban it outright, others limit stopping times, others limit what you can sell etc. and the County of Los Angeles can only really regulate trucks through requiring a washroom after one hour in the same spot. Seeing the surge in trucks, a Food Policy Task Force has been forged to figure out how to unify these regulations.
In the meantime, the food trucks are regulating themselves. For example, a brochure has been put together on ‘how to be a good neighbour’ with brick-and-mortar businesses, which you get when you pick up a permit. They also steer away from setting up in front of a brick-and-mortar business that sells the same foods. So far self-regulation has worked.
When the owner of The Grilled Cheese was asked where trucks tend to locate, her answer was predictable: where there is a lot of foot traffic, in pedestrian-oriented areas. Also in industrial areas where there are lots of workers. They typically don’t operate in residential areas but do go into some to service construction workers and nannies (which makes sense if you think about it – these areas have few places for day workers to eat, especially affordable eateries). I experienced this later in my trip when I was staying in a residential area in North Hollywood. I went out to find some lunch and couldn’t find any stores and then fortunately happened upon a food truck and was saved by a burrito.
So Los Angeles doesn’t provide a ‘how-to’ story in terms of a regulatory framework. Like many other cities they are still figuring out how to respond to this recent demand by consumers and influx of people wanting to vend food. Still I found it inspiring how food trucks have taken to the streets and have found ways to work around city regulations. And, that trucks are trusted to self-regulate, in terms of where they locate to brick-and-mortar businesses, rather than have more cumbersome regulations imposed on them, which is a good example of letting the market work itself out. Most of all it’s a demonstration of how the street food movement is growing and how regulators and politicians are trying to respond to this movement fuelled by entrepreneurs and their growing customer base. This is best exemplified by the fact that a city planner, political representative, and food truck owner were leading the tour, showing pride in the city’s street food.
What I have come to learn is that the story of street food in every city is different and this uniqueness embodies the history of a city’s growth and street life. If the history of street food in each city embodies a unique story, this is an opportunity to write a new chapter, one where cities relax their regulations, stand back, and watch as street life flourishes and as the public eats it all up.
*The discussion with Professor Alfonso Morales was supplemented with text from his article Race, Class, and Gender Myths of Street Merchants: Reconstructing Perceptions of Street-Level Commerce, 2010.