For the first time since Iowan Shon Bruellman started The Big Red Food Truck four years ago, he doesn't have a permit to set up shop in Des Moines. The former hog farmer turned entrepreneur said the $2,000 for required city paper work and fees isn't worth it, because he can spend half as much and get multiple permits for numerous suburbs nearby.
While the Des Moines truck scene booms, his pub-food cuisine, including tacos, ternderloins and cheeseburgers, is on the sidelines in the city limits. The entrepreneurial spirit of the business, the relative ease of the set-up and the lure of trying unusual foods make it an appealing way to break into the restaurant industry, especially as the economy continues to rebound, Consumers are spending more on dining out and specialty foods that are both convenient and hip, fill that demand perfectly.
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Food trucks are a $960 million business and are projected to hit $1.1 billion in 2022, according to a report by IBISWorld. But the researcher also found that growth in the food truck industry is slowing — 7.3% in 2012 through 2017 and now expected at 3% through 2022 -- due to increased competition, low profit margins and the sorts of municipal regulations that irk Bruellman.
Municipalities don't make it simple
'A lot of food trucks are disappointed and much more so, the people are disappointed," said the 46-year-old who in the spring launched a second food truck, Hotsy Totsy, which serves tater tots topped with everything from barbecued brisket to buffalo chicken, and employees seven people. "Des Moines was on the map. We're cool and we've got food trucks. Then, it was, well, where are all the food trucks?'
The city of Des Moines could not be reached for comment.
But Iowa's capital is hardly the only American city with less-than-hospitable rules or fees for four-wheeled eateries. A study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that Los Angeles food truck operators must move their vehicles hourly, aspiring New York food truckers can wait as long as 15 years for a permit and Boston owners can pay as much as $38,000 annually in regulatory costs.
Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear the case brought by a Chicago food truck owner who contends the rule that food trucks must be 200 feet away from other businesses serving food, like restaurants and convenience stores, is unfair. And in March, after confronted by a federal lawsuit it seemed poised to lose, the city of Louisville got rid of an ordinance requiring food purveyors on wheels to be at least 150 feet from restaurants with similar menus unless the restaurateurs gave their permission.
"You're not allowed to impose restrictions that hurt a business over another," said Sam Bracken, 52, owner of The Celtic Pig, a Louisville food truck selling barbecue, Irish and Scottish fare. "That's not fair to us…. Now, we can park anywhere I want. I could park in front of a barbecue restaurant or an Irish restaurant."
Bracken traded in his landscape business for the food truck in 2014 together with his girlfriend Melissa Ingram, 49, a former executive chef at a local college. The pair had spent the previous year selling food out of a smoker they set up in the parking lot of a local tire shop.
Not as easy as it looks
"There's a romanticism about food trucks. I can't tell you how many people come up to our food truck, order and say, 'It's my dream,'" he said. "Thanks to the Food Network and food truck TV shows there, people see a line and think, 'They're making money.' People don't see it as a real restaurant, but as an easier thing to break into."
To show them otherwise, Bracken invites anyone who confesses they wished they owned a food truck to work at The Celtic Pig for a day. A few have taken him up on the offer; he recalls one person who lasted only three hours on a 95-degree day.
Weather is just one challenge food truck operators face that their brick-and-mortar brethren don't. They must work in tight spaces that can't be air-conditioned in hot weather and don't have a year-round work season due to cold winter temperatures that keep outdoor diners away.
It's also hard to find staff OK with short shifts and there's no between-meal down time to, say, dust or roll napkins and maintaining expensive equipment. The truck must be durable, but so does the kitchen equipment inside, which has no back-up infrastructure
"You build a little restaurant on wheels -- an electric generator, propane, hot and cold water, fridges, freezers -- and then, you drive it over potholes at 50 miles per hour and things break," Kirk Francis, who co-founded the now quartet of Captain Cookie & the Milkman food trucks that sell cookies and made-to-order ice cream sandwiches in the Washington, D.C. area. "Your transmission never goes out in a brick-and-mortar store. It could go out in a food truck in the middle of the business season and you're out for three weeks."
23 trips to get permits
Three of his trucks have been broken into, Francis said. Local government regulations are an issue for him, too; he cited the huge amount of paper work D.C. requires food truckers to fill out -- a total the Chamber Foundation study put at 23 separate trips to local agencies to obtain permits.
Timothy Wilson of the district's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs declined to comment on the exact number of trips needed to complete the necessary paperwork, but said due to security concerns, setting up a food truck business is more complicated than in other municipalities.
Regardless of what city it's in, the food truck business has grown fiercely competitive. Francis, for example, has seen his lunch revenue drop as much as 50% over the last three years.
"It's kind of ebbing a bit. We're not going away anytime soon, but we're no longer the hottest kid on the block," said Francis, 32. "It's just a normal food trend. Cupcakes were biggest thing ever for about five years. Then, food trucks were greatest thing ever.
His trucks now are seguing to a physical business; he and his wife, Juliann, a former reporter, have opened two stores and boast more than 50 employees.They started selling cookies wholesale in 2008 after he left his job as a U.S. Department of Homeland contractor. In 2012, their first truck debuted.
The door to the food truck world won't close behind him. The concept of mobile food is ancient from the wandering bread peddlers in ancient Rome to the immigrant pushcarts in New York City in the late 1880s and early 1900s, according to Jonathan Deutsch, a professor of culinary arts and food science at Drexel University.
"It's capitalism. When there's an opportunity to make money bringing deliciousness to someone, we like that," he said. "I don't know anyone who's had a burning passion to do this who found it insurmountable, while I know plenty of people who dream of opening a restaurant and it remains a dream."