SEATTLE, Washington — Over the past decade, food trucks have become a staple of the world’s city streets. Once reserved for construction sites and baseball stadiums, one can now find them anywhere one finds hungry mouths. For many, however, food trucks offer more than just a cheap source of food; the benefits they bring to their communities have made them a valuable asset in the fight against poverty. So, what exactly are the benefits of food trucks?
Benefits for Small Business Owners
For one, food trucks are empowering aspiring entrepreneurs in impoverished communities who seek a business of their own. Research shows that small business ownership is one of the key factors that encourage social mobility in low-income families. Yet it can be difficult to get one’s foot in the door. For those looking to break into the restaurant business, for example, the sheer expense of the enterprise is often prohibitive.
The average startup cost of a new dine-in restaurant is roughly half-a-million USD, and that is without factoring in the continued costs of maintenance, staffing and advertising. Add in the fact that it will often be months before the new restaurant begins to turn a profit, if at all, and one can see how 60% of new restaurants fail within their first three years. With food trucks, on the other hand, small-business owners gain a relatively safe and cost-effective startup opportunity.
Not only are food trucks cheaper to obtain, but cheaper to maintain. A new food truck costs on average less than half that of a new restaurant and requires fewer resources to operate. Moreover, the mobility of the food truck eliminates what is often the biggest stumbling block for a new restaurant: poor location. Food truck owners simply move where the money is, while engaging customers by interacting with them on social media.
All of this contributes to what are substantially lower barriers to entry for those looking to get started. This has made the industry a favorite of low-income chefs seeking to start their own business.
Combatting Economic Uncertainty
To see the practical benefits of this, one must only look to Venezuela. There, amid the grip of an economic crisis, the country has seen the popularity of food trucks skyrocket.
In many ways, it is similar to what occurred in the U.S. following the aftermath of the Great Recession. Young Venezuelans needing a steady source of income have turned to food trucks as a means to combat economic uncertainty.
So far, this has proven to be a winning move. Food truck festivals have become a weekly fixture in the capital Caracas, with scores of customers lining up for a chance to eat cheap food and feel a sense of normalcy. While food trucks cannot fix Venezuela’s problems, they certainly can provide a measure of relief.
Benefits for Customers
The positives of food trucks extend to more than just their owners, however. Their presence also offers substantial benefits to the communities in which they operate.
One of the most immediately visible benefits of food trucks is their affordability. In India, for example, an average food truck meal costs only 50 rupees. Eating at a traditional restaurant, on the other hand, typically runs closer to 1,000. When the average Indian household spends more than 50% of their budget on food purchases, having access to cheap, quality food is essential.
What really differentiates food trucks from competing street food options, however, is how the food is prepared. Foodborne illness is a major concern in much of the developing world, and for good reason. The World Health Organization estimates that unsafe food alone contributes to more than 600 million cases of illness and 420,000 deaths annually.
Activists often point toward the poor quality of street food as a significant contributing factor. A 2010 study in Mumbai, India, for instance, found that more than 88% of the city’s street food was unfit for consumption.
With food trucks, on the other hand, customers receive meals that have been prepared in a certified kitchen space, while those who are handling the food have convenient access to all the tools of proper sanitation. As a result, food trucks have increasingly gained a reputation for being a safer, healthier alternative to street vendors.
Food Trucks Fighting COVID-19
This reputation for convenient sanitation has become particularly handly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With no indoor seating to worry about nor any difficulty in facilitating social distancing measures, food trucks have become an effective way to distribute food to vulnerable communities. Customers simply walk up, grab the food and leave.
Additionally, with restaurants forced to shutter worldwide, many restaurant owners have begun to turn to food trucks as a way to keep business going until the pandemic subsides. While certainly not a perfect solution, the presence of food trucks in a community means more food in mouths and more money in pockets.
The Future of Food Trucks
Once thought to be a passing fad, food trucks have grown to be a multibillion-dollar industry internationally. Indeed, rather than slowing down, the industry looks primed to continue its rise in prominence over the next decade.
That is not to say that no challenges remain, however. Analysts point out that as local governments adapt to new economic realities, food truck owners will have to contend with an increasingly difficult regulatory environment.
Moreover, the continued popularity of food trucks also brings with it intensifying competition. While this can be a boon for consumers, a crowded market may lead existing food truck owners to face some tough choices in the years ahead. For the communities that need them the most, however, the benefits of food trucks are likely here to stay.
– James Roark