Reno’s war on consumers’ options
The food truck phenomenon has turned the restaurant industry inside out. What used to be nothing more than the occasional circus-colored ice cream truck filling the suburbs with the jaunty sounds of a calliope or the chance for ravenous construction workers to get a cheap, prepackaged sandwich has turned into a revolutionary new way of thinking about how to get good food fast.
Industry mavens correctly predicted that the modern consumer still desires lunches wrapped in paper, but they are willing to pay a premium to get a product with a higher quality, better presentation, and with all the pizzazz of a trendy eatery. They also correctly predicted that with smart marketing, the kitsch value of these trucks, with their bright graphics, bold themes and specialized offerings, would be off the charts.
Naturally, there has been some tension with other segments of the food industry. In response to a series of complaints from some merchants on Wells Avenue, the city of Reno has unveiled strict new regulations which, if adopted, are meant to level the playing field between the food trucks and traditional restaurants, including things such as limiting their hours to between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and mandating the truck be moved every two hours, regardless of whether they are there by invitation.
“The two-hour time limit alone would be enough to put us out of business” says Haley Wood, owner of the Gourmelt grilled cheese truck. “We only serve food three hours a day, and this would cut our business by a third.”
Joe Horn, owner of the popular Dish Café who is still completing the purchase of a new food truck, is extremely concerned about the proposed 300-feet restriction around a permanent business selling a similar product. “I haven’t even served one meal from my truck, and already I’m afraid of losing it. This restriction would prohibit us from operating on almost every street corner in the city, essentially anywhere there are people.”
In some cases, these regulations as currently written don’t even make sense. Take Calvin’s Sausages, for example. The same group that owns the Imperial Bar & Lounge owns Calvin’s Sausages, so on a busy Friday when Imperial has shut their kitchen to focus on selling drinks, they could not bring in their own food truck, park it in their own parking lot to service their existing customers, because there is a pizzeria across the street. How is this good government?
It’s not to say that the complaints from then traditional restaurants aren’t without merit. Both Wood from Gourmelt and Horn from Dish Café readily acknowledged that the potential for abuse is there, but expressed a desire to find a compromise. “I didn’t invest 150 grand in a food truck to hurt someone else’s restaurant, I did it to expand mine,” Horn said. “But I’m sure there is a solution. If a truck is in violation of the law, then enforce the law, don’t regulate us out of business.”
Horn is correct. It’s bad business for food trucks to intentionally cannibalize business from traditional restaurants or to violate the law, and there is no doubt these practices occur. The current headline on the Mobile Cuisine magazine’s website is “How to beat that food truck parking ticket,” and this bothers me greatly. Focus on learning the laws, not learning how to beat them. The solution, however, isn’t ham-handed restrictions that will unfairly punish those who desire to conduct business responsibly if given the chance.
The city needs to go back to the drawing board on this one. Yes, Reno needs to impose some regulations to ensure that food trucks do not become parasites feeding off the competition, but these regulations as currently drafted are akin to swatting a mosquito with a sledgehammer, and they don’t deserve to pass.