New York's Meals on Wheels Hit Bumps in the Road

Food trucks, a popular trend in cuisine in recent years, are abundant in large cities across America and offer a variety of food options for “foodies” and hungry city dwellers. However, eating a pretzel or hot dog is one thing, but eating a meal from a truck – meat in particular – may not be the most sanitary option. 

In many cities, these inescapable parts of urban culture present challenges on the sanitation front, as well as in perceived unfair competition from local, sedentary restaurants. These issues need to be addressed by city officials. 

It is hot enough just standing outside in the summer heat, but imagine cooking inside a truck without AC and a running grill. Given the limited amount of space, it does not seem like trucks would be able to maintain the same level of cleanliness and hygiene as a regular kitchen.

New York has a set of food guidelines which food trucks must follow and are inspected annually much like in any commercial kitchen. For example, they must have a sink with hot and cold water, refrigerator (to maintain foods at a certain temperature), and ventilation hood. Keeping food preparation surfaces clean and free of contamination is also required.

Cities like Seattle, Chicago, and Los Angeles tightly regulate food truck menus with food safety in mind. For example, trucks in Seattle are not allowed to handle raw meat. Instead they must heat pre-cooked patties in the case of hamburgers or cook meat in a licensed “mothership” kitchen at an established restaurant. Trucks with meat items on their menu also undergo more frequent inspections.

Sanitation is understandably a concern for officials nationwide and consumers wary of patronizing these trucks; however the food truck movement in New York has not taken the food safety or sanitation angle.

New York City officials focus less on health and are more concerned with trucks' taking up metered parking and over-crowding – some blocks in midtown have as many as three or four trucks. Additionally, complaints from existing businesses which do not like their rent-free competition on the curb are putting pressure on the city.

To ameliorate the issue of competition with existing restaurants, Seattle has launched a new law which prevents trucks from serving customers within 50 feet of a restaurant. Chicago is also considering imposing a law to prevent trucks from parking within 200 feet of an existing restaurant.

Food truck courts – which bring vendors to a designated area where they can sell their food – are a great alternative which could curb competition concerns. However, food courts will also leave many areas underserved. But with tickets and metered parking violation fines on the rise, trucks may be forced to consider this option. The first private food truck lot in New York is set to open this week in Long Island City, Queens. Lot on Tap – a beer garden located under the High Line Park in Manhattan – is a popular spot which has opened its parking lot to food trucks.

One thing is for sure; food trucks are here to stay. The trucks are savvy when it comes to social media which makes them accessible – many share information about their location, menu, and specials through Facebook, Twitter, and phone apps. With low overhead and a chance to build and expand a business, food trucks offer opportunities to entrepreneurs which are hard to resist.

The City of New York needs to tackle both crowding and sanitation issues. Officials recognize the value of food trucks as part of urban culture but are also troubled with crowding, traffic, and noise complaints from local businesses and residents. The city can balance concerns by embracing the value of food truck culture but also imposing strict regulations as other cities have done.

Photo Credit: SusieFoodie