Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Food Truck business vs established restaurants vs street foods-Is there a need for some restrictions?

Food catering is a multibillion industry in almost all countries with sizable population and significant economic wealth. Eating out practice is becoming more and more frequent with families getting lesser and lesser time to devote much time in the kitchen. There is a direct relationship between wealth and frequency of eating out and obviously when both parents work regularly the family income is bound to increase significantly. As a corollary to this development weekend relaxation becomes a norm rather than an exception. There are eateries of various kinds fitting the pocket of every consumer and the quality and ambiance of this experience will depend on how much spending capacity the consumer has. There are reputed restaurants, in the stand alone as well as in the chain format and most of them are supposed to be doing well. Competition for established "brick and mortar" establishments usually comes from road side vendors especially in the Asian continent and even well to do customers flock to these way side outlets attracted by the taste and flavor of their offerings beside the low cost factor. 

Then came the Food Truck phenomenon in the US started by trained chefs as entrepreneurial ventures which is considered a glorified version of street vending. With Food Trucks becoming an integral part of America's eating culture, conflicts started between the established industry and the new entrants, Food Trucks. Against such a background civic bodies within whose boundaries Food Trucks operate were constrained to evolve workable arrangements that would avoid confrontation between these two sectors. One of the big advantages of Food Trucks is that they deliver the food near the places where customers congregate without the necessity to drive long distances that is needed to get access to regular restaurants. Besides Food Trucks use modern IT enabled Smart phone apps to contact customers about their whereabouts making it hassle free for the latter to get their service. Food Trucks can also go to places where there are special functions to cater to the attendees.

One of the biggest constraints for Food Trucks is the high traffic density in most cities where they operate with severe restrictions on parking. Unless legally allowed parking spaces are available, it becomes difficult to do viable business. Fortunately civic bodies realizing how much the citizens like the foods offered by the Trucks, give licenses as well as allot specific areas for them to do their business. Why do people patronize street foods considering that eating in the open, especially on the side walks of busy streets can be quite distracting and some times unhygienic with dust and dirt flying around? In the US many people are becoming more and more sensitive to the origin of food materials as long haulage creates a heavy carbon foot print and adverse environmental issues. Locavores always prefer to go for locally grown food raw materials and most food trucks obtain their supplies from nearby local markets or farmers markets. Probably preparation of foods in front of them is an added attraction as there is greater transparency in the process.

As a movement Food Truck business in the US evolved with least conflicts with the brick and mortar eateries and in many cases there appears to be a "live and let live" spirit pervading their operations. Still there are issues that can sour their relations in some cities where the legal frame work is not suitably worked out. The two issues which are foremost to be considered while framing regulatory frame work are the impact of food truck business on the established restaurants who operate often from expensive real estate facilities and the likely effect of free flow of pedestrian traffic, especially in crowded areas in the cities. There is no consensus regarding the proximity between the food truck operator and an established restaurant. Some feel that the distance should not be less than 1000 ft while others want this distance reduced, probably to 150 ft. One wonders how is a country boasting of free economy, capitalism and least government control can restrict the entrepreneurial talents through such regulations. Ultimately in such an environment strongest will survive while others will have fade eventually!

In India the conditions are totally different and most civic authorities do not function for the well being of the citizens pursuing their own agenda for self-aggrandisement. While street foods are allowed to function wherever they want for a "fee", there is absolutely no oversight regarding the quality and safety of foods they serve. Many street food enthusiasts often say that they eat these foods "closing" their eyes and "praying" in their mind hoping to be spared the agonies of food infection! These foods are irresistible to many because of their freshness, flavor and taste. Fortunately there are serious attempts to "reform" this sector vis-a-vis safety to the consumers and many vendors are becoming sensitive to the dangers posed by improper hygienic conditions, unsafe water and rotting food wastes and these kiosks are improving day by day. Recent advent of Food Trucks in India may give a different experience to the Indian consumers but whether they will succeed against the traditional street vendors is a million dollar question!. 


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