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Austin may not be as food truck-friendly as you think

Austin may not be as food truck-friendly as you think

The Picnic food truck trucks park Austin
The Picnic is one of several food truck parks that keeps Austin's trailer industry humming. The Picnic/Facebook

With a decrease in available real estate and a general aging of the trend, food trucks in Austin aren’t quite the big news they used to be. Now a comprehensive survey of the food truck industry, released on March 20 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is ranking just how food truck-friendly Austin is compared to other American cities.

To frame its research, the chamber combined publicly available statistics from counties and municipalities with data culled from a survey of 288 food truck owners and operators in 20 major cities across the United States. The research zeroed in on how regulations, costs, and restrictions can affect a food truck business.

Austin ranks seventh overall in the field of 20, just behind Houston in the sixth spot. (Neither Dallas-Fort Worth nor San Antonio were included in the report.)

Of particular emphasis were regulations. Many of the survey respondents reported more red tape for food trucks than for brick-and-mortar restaurants, according to the chamber.

In Austin, there are 20 initially required procedures, ranging from notary requirements to food safety training, that necessitate 14 trips to regulatory agencies — and a total of $1,139 in fees paid. Houston has a slightly less favorable climate, with 21 procedures required over 17 visits and $1,788 in associated costs. The most food truck-friendly cities like No. 1 Portland and No. 2 Denver often combine procedures to reduce legwork.

The next metric deals with the ease of complying with restrictions once the food truck is operating, examining both the number of rules an operator must obey for regular business and the total number of square feet that trucks must keep away from various entities like schools, restaurants, or private residences.

Austin lands in the middle of the pack for these metrics, with 12 restrictions and a total of 105 square feet of distance rules. With only six restrictions and 160 square feet of distance, Houston ranks slightly higher than Austin, but both were well above cities like Minneapolis, which has 22 restrictions and 1,636 square feet of distance mandated by some of those rules.

Lastly, the chamber looked at how much it costs to keep up to date with compliance including insurance; taxes; food, safety, and fire inspections; vehicle registration; and notary expenses, among other factors. In total, running a truck for a year in Austin costs $22,168, while in Houston it costs $22,746 — well over top-seeded Portland, which only averaged a cost of $5,410.

Like all cities in the survey, Austin has its own set of particular hurdles. Survey respondents told the chamber that the one-stop permitting shop saves time and money, but they remain frustrated at the inspection process which requires a significant chunk of time to finish with low flexibility in availability.

Other complaints in Austin include the requirement that food truck operators use a food preparation facility, or commissary, to clean vehicles and prep and store food. One respondent to the survey said that the three currently operating commissaries are “simply not enough for all the trucks.” Another barrier is that county-level registration is required for all food managers, an unusual rule.

Despite obstacles, the food truck industry remains healthy nationwide, driving tourism dollars and often acting as an incubator for brick-and-mortar businesses. That is especially true in Austin, where food trucks define much of the city’s culinary identity and popular restaurants like Via 313, Veracruz All Natural, and Chi’Lantro BBQ all got their start on wheels.