What’s with the food truck obsession?

Portland, Oregon, is often considered a mecca for studying and understanding trends in urban planning.  Although in typical American city-building fashion, the city has an interstate encompassing its entire downtown.  Canadian urban planners do not want to emulate the highway infrastructure of Portland, though they seem quite keen on promoting another phenomenon popularized there: The ubiquitous food truck.

I recognize that there are many types of food trucks, and some have been around for a long time – such as coffee trucks driving through industrial areas, or chip trucks parked alongside highways.  This new phenomenon of urban food truck;  however, is different.  I am referring to the brightly coloured cube vans parked in busy places, often where there are already established restaurants.

Food trucks, once severely restricted by municipal bylaws, are finding sympathetic councils liberalizing rules across Alberta to woo them en masse.  It seems some view each additional food truck as a notch in the belt of becoming an ultra-urban “live, work, and play” international destination.  But does food from a truck taste better than from a proper kitchen? And does their presence add investment into a community?

In discussion with others, it seems that food trucks are appealing for the following reasons: 1) support for local business/food producers, 2) maneuverability, 3) The “cool” factor.

My take on these arguments are as follows:

1) No business shows more commitment to a neighbourhood than those who risk all to establish a traditional bricks and mortar restaurant.  Restaurants are almost always run by community members, and food is often locally sourced – we don’t need a truck to teach us about sustainability.  Food trucks appear hyper-profit driven (spending so much time on marketing and lobbying) even though they, ironically, seem to cater towards the “socially conscious”.  If a food truck stops going into a struggling neighbourhood, they are further disinvesting in its future:  when the going gets tough…

2) Why is maneuverability of food a good thing? If food trucks congregate at a local festival, and they intercept us before we can walk to a traditional restaurant, who is winning in this situation? They also often obstruct sidewalks with their customers, and they consume several parking spaces (including for their humming diesel generators) at the busiest-of-busy times.

3) People tend to point to the general ‘cool factor’ of food trucks.  In my opinion they are not that cool.  I do not like that there are no washrooms for customers (or for the food handlers), and I feel that they are typically overpriced (shouldn’t a truck that doesn’t pay property taxes pass the savings to the customers?).  I can’t explain why they are considered ‘cool’, but they are. I predict that politicians will soon routinely pose for photo-ops in front of these trucks during elections, replacing the practice of pouring Tim Horton’s coffee in front of the media.

Yes, Portland has introduced several innovative concepts to the rest of us urban planners such as city-sponsored mixed-use developments, new takes on transit, etcetera;  however, not everything from Portland should be adopted without critical reflection. We know that we do not like the extensive American highway infrastructure, but I feel that the food truck craze should also hit the road, or at least they should not be preferentially treated by bylaw over traditional restaurants.  Municipal councils across Alberta should ratchet up the restrictions on these trucks in favour of those who want to put an actual steak in the community (pun intended).  Investment in a community should be encouraged by businesses, and other redevelopment will follow – creating livable spaces over the long-term.  Let’s build communities to last.

Postscript: Okay, I was trying to be provocative, but it leads to the question:  What is the ‘value added’ found within food trucks? Why are they considered ‘cool’?  If we can isolate that, perhaps we could apply these principles to other infrastructure.  The food truck provides an eerie obsession worthy of further study.



If you liked this post, please consider reading one of my novels. I write on a variety of topics. The broad themes of my fiction include individualism versus collective thought, and the importance of culture and identity in society. I sometimes use humour as a tool. I sometimes use pity. Sit back, click, and enjoy.


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(Blog note: I wrote the following a few years ago and it was published in the APPI Planning Journal.)