Sunday, September 5, 2010

Food Trucks and Public Space

Matthew Geller, September 2010

Street food vending precedes restaurants by centuries. As far back as Ancient Rome, merchants served the public by selling "street food" in marketplaces, sporting venues, fairs and other large gatherings. In the late 1700s, France saw the fall of the aristocracy, which minimized the royal rights of the guilds (confectioners, rotisseurs, butchers) that had had control over certain foods since the middle ages. Many of the guild members sold food in open air marketplaces. Back in those days restaurants were opposed vigorously by the guilds, who thought that allowing patrons to sit down and eat food in the same place where it was being sold was unfair. The modern restaurant industry was born out of the public's demand for choice and the emergence of jobless cooks who had previously served the aristocracy. The guild opposition proved to be no match for public demand.


Los Angeles is no stranger to street food or food trucks, but the new gourmet food truck trend is popularizing a historically low profile industry. Much like the food guilds of post revolutionary France, restauranteurs today are wary of the fresh competition these new trucks present. Los Angeles consumers, however, are happy about the array of new choices, as well as the reasonable prices. Lower costs of operation have allowed the trucks to introduce higher-cost items such as duck confit and truffle-infused whatevers to a larger audience.
Emerging trends that affect local businesses are sometimes met with reactionary calls for regulations from municipal governments. Paradigm shifts in any industry spark debate about fair competition, safety, and public need. Currently, the City of Los Angeles is debating new food truck regulations meant to curb deleterious parking impacts that are supposedly affecting areas of the city where these new trucks operate. These shortsighded measures ignore the less-obvious but nonetheless positive effects of food trucks on parking, traffic and transportation throughout Los Angeles.


Food trucks are often drawn to areas that have large lunchtime populations but that are underserved by sit-down restaurants. The gourmet trucks present seemingly endless options--including Korean, Indian, Jewish deli, organic, and various fusions of these and more--and this fuels the public's demand for them.
The aforementioned regulations are supposedly being sought because the trucks are taking up valuable parking. The rationale behind the regulations is the City's attempt to keep parking meters open and clear for the benefit of the public. This action begs the question: What is the best use of a public parking space?
Councilman LaBonge correctly asserts that parking meters were established to create turnover in business districts and so give more access to parking to the buying public. However, meters were introduced in the 1950s, and starting in 1972 the City of Los Angeles required all new businesses to provide their own parking. This was done so that public parking remained available to teh public and did not end up reserved for the sole use of business owners who happened to be located near public parking spaces.

To read the rest of the article go to "Food Trucks and Public Space"

Matthew Geller is CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors' Association
Photos by Richard Risemberg

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