Easiest metros for starting a food truck
There’s nothing like a food truck for quick bites, reasonable prices, and convenience—which helps to explain how the food truck industry came to reap more than $2 billion a year.
Food trucks began in the 19th century with a covered wagon selling lunch food to journalists in Providence, R.I., and took off after World War II in growing suburbs where restaurants were rare. More recently, in 2008 a chef named Roy Choi started selling $2 Korean barbecue tacos from a truck on the streets of Los Angeles, jump-starting the modern food truck industry. Today, city governments have gotten involved with tangled bureaucracies, tedious processes, high fees, and more.
Industry data show food truck revenues from 2011 to 2016 grew at an annual rate of 7.9%. The foods being sold represent the diversity of the truck owners: In Chicago alone, four out of five local food trucks are minority-owned small businesses. But vast differences in local regulations mean trucks are more popular and more successful in some places than others.
Some market research has predicted that competition and unfavorable regulatory conditions in some cities could force food truck growth to slow to a halt. While food trucks may seem like simple operations, owners pay for permits, maintenance, and insurance; find parking spaces and storage spaces; prep kitchens and get employee licenses. In food-truck-centric New York City, for example, the number of street food vending permits being issued for carts and trucks has hardly changed in the last 30 years—and the permit for the most expensive hot dog stand in the city (not even a truck, mind you) runs more than a quarter of a million dollars.
One estimate says opening a food truck will take several months and can cost more than $125,000. In some places, restaurateurs complain that food trucks threaten their business, but data have shown that high growth in local mobile food trucks is linked to higher growth in local restaurant and catering businesses.
Research shows the best U.S. cities for food trucks are Portland, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis. The five most difficult cities are Boston, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Seattle.
Stacker compiled a gallery of the easiest metros for starting a food truck in using a ranking by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Food Truck Nation, which surveyed hundreds of food truck owners. Metros are ranked by an index that factors in the cost to start, restrictions on location, and the regulatory cost to operate food trucks.
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#20. Boston, MA
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #20 ($17,066 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #7
- Operating rank: #20 ($37,907 annual fees)
Among the cities Food Truck Nation looked at, Boston ranked worst for starting a food truck. Food trucks must install GPS devices to report their location every five minutes, and Boston requires 32 procedures to start a new truck. Owners pay about $17,000 to the city government, mostly for zoning permits. That said, the online permitting portal and food truck start-up guide are easy to navigate.
#19. Washington D.C.
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #19 ($2,720 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #17
- Operating rank: #19 ($29,382 annual fees)
Starting up a food truck in the nation’s capital means high start-up fees, a size limit on trucks, and a vendor badge requirement for each worker, also with associated fees. Vendors say the city does not offer enough public spots in its monthly lottery and say they are kept from high-tourist areas such as the National Mall on weekends.
#18. San Francisco, CA
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #17 ($3,481 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #18
- Operating rank: #18 ($28,642 annual fees)
San Francisco requires permits and licenses at a minimum cost of nearly $4,000. Each permit is valid for one location, so moving to another vending spot requires going through the approval process again. Truck owners must notify competing businesses within a specified radius that they intend to set up shop and then get those businesses’ written authorization.
#17. Seattle, WA
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #4 ($6,211 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #20
- Operating rank: #14 ($32,076 annual fees)
In Seattle, proximity restrictions mean no food truck can operate within 50 feet of a restaurant but must operate within 200 feet of a bathroom with an agreement with its owner for access. The online permitting system is frequently inoperable, inaccurate, and inflexible according to food truck owners. Even changing menus is difficult, and trucks are prohibited from preparing ingredients on board.
#16. Minneapolis, MN
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #18 ($1,674 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #15
- Operating rank: #9 ($31,694 annual fees)
It is relatively easy to obtain permits and licenses in Minneapolis, but the city ranks at the bottom in terms of restrictions. A dozen proximity rules govern distance from restaurants, festivals, residential buildings, and more. Throughout the state, food trucks cannot vend in one location for over 21 days straight, nor stay open past midnight. Also, downtown Minneapolis’ combined taxes on prepared meals are 10.775%, the highest among the nation’s 50 largest cities.
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#15. Columbus, OH
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #16 ($1,560 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #16
- Operating rank: #5 ($20,820 annual fees)
In Columbus, starting up and running a food truck is relatively easy. The troubles lie in zoning, the use of public right-of-way, and regulations such as keeping a space of 25 feet beyond the truck free of refuse. Locals say some of the best food trucks are run by immigrants from Latin American nations offering cuisine from their homelands.
#14. Phoenix, AZ
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #7 ($1,540 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #19
- Operating rank: #2 ($25,187 annual fees)
One of the trickiest regulations for operating a food truck in Phoenix is the distance that must be kept between two food trucks on the same side of a street which is about two city blocks. Even in such a sprawling city, the restriction is significant. Other localities nearby require peddler permits for vending at a private event even just once a year or require fingerprint cards for each employee.
#13. Chicago, IL
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #15 ($2,713 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #9
- Operating rank: #17 ($32,461 annual fees)
Chicago’s food truck scene is in trouble, vendors say, because of onerous regulations, an unfriendly business environment, and high taxes. To obtain a permit, owners must first meet with a business consultant and fill out an extensive pre-application form. Every menu change triggers an inspection. No food truck can operate within 200 feet of a restaurant, grocery store, or even vending machine. Only 3% of the downtown Loop is legally open to food truck operators, a truck cannot remain in one location longer than two hours and the average food truck undergoes about 15 inspections a year.
#12. St. Louis, MO
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #11 ($1,204 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #11
- Operating rank: #16 ($26,191 annual fees)
In St. Louis, start-up fees are low, and the city’s website is easily navigable. But many agencies are involved, and the process is poorly defined and understood. Also, each of the over 100 townships in the St. Louis area has its own fees and permitting processes. In the city, trucks are required to have a flashing signal device to indicate transactions underway.
#11. Raleigh, NC
- Obtaining permits and licenses rank: #10 ($848 registration fees and permits)
- Restrictions rank: #14
- Operating rank: #8 ($22,827 annual fees)
Running a food truck in Raleigh means complying with a sizable number of proximity limits that restrict the public right-of-ways that can be serviced. Also, there is an array of regulations across the metro area, adding costs. Government support, zoning, licensing, and taxes all cause problems, operators say.
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