Budding culinary entrepreneurs love food trucks because they are a less expensive way for chefs with big dreams but little cash to open their own businesses. Consumers love them because they provide a wide variety of delicious foods conveniently. But opponents (usually restaurants and their associations) allege that the very things many people love about food trucks—their lower startup and operating costs and their mobile nature—give them an unfair advantage and risk putting brick-and-mortar restaurants out of business. Accordingly, opponents have lobbied municipalities, often successfully, for a variety of restrictions on food trucks.
This study puts food truck opponents’ concerns to the test. Specifically, it uses 12 years of county-level census data on food trucks and restaurants to explore whether growth in the number of food trucks results in fewer restaurants.
By the numbers, food trucks do not appear to represent a major threat to the restaurant industry. Not only do restaurants vastly outnumber food trucks—across the study period, the average county had 145 restaurants and just one food truck—but both sectors generally grew over the 12 years studied. Even as food trucks took off following the Great Recession, the restaurant industry continued to grow.
Stronger evidence comes from our statistical analysis, which controls for factors like economic conditions and confirms food truck growth is not followed by restaurant decline. Specifically, the number of food trucks in one year has no effect on the number of restaurants in the next year.
Instead, food trucks may complement the restaurant industry. We found a positive relationship between the number of food trucks and the number of restaurants in the same year, suggesting both sectors can thrive at the same time.
In short, our analysis shows that critics’ concerns about food trucks hurting the restaurant industry are unfounded. Although some restaurants may close due to competition from food trucks—just as they may close due to competition from other restaurants—our results suggest food trucks do not pose a unique threat to the restaurant industry. Rather, on the whole, food trucks appear to complement restaurants as both industries grow side by side.
These results strongly suggest that food trucks have been unfairly maligned by restaurants and their associations and that municipalities that have enacted anticompetitive restrictions on food trucks have been deceived. To right this injustice, cities should repeal restrictions designed to protect restaurants from competition and ensure any remaining restrictions on food trucks are narrowly targeted to protecting the public’s health and safety, not restaurants’ bottom lines. And states should consider preventing cities from enacting protectionist restrictions. By increasing food truck freedom, cities and states can allow entrepreneurs to pursue the American Dream while also promoting business growth and allowing their communities to flourish.