Imagine that you are a restaurant owner, and you have run your small, but profitable “lifestyle businesses” for a decade. You aren’t rich, but it’s a good life. Then, one day, a bunch of hipsters in food trucks pull up on the curb outside your establishment. Local office workers — the backbone of your restaurant clientele — line up to get Asian Tacos and Texas BBQ.
The food trucks come back three days per week. On those days, your restaurant is half as full as normal. You lose money on those days. If this continues, your restaurant will go out of business. And, the worst part is, these food trucks are immune to many of the costs that come with a real restaurant. They don’t need to maintain a restroom for customers. Or pay rent over the holiday season when nobody is coming in. No utensils or plates to clean. No waiters.
If you owned that restaurant, you would be pretty pissed. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is having this very discussion.
It’s a tough situation, and it’s easy to feel bad for the restaurant owners. But it would be a terrible mistake to reduce food truck permits, limit their locations, or put other protectionist measures into place. In fact, Protectionism is already in place against food trucks — the Mission enjoys very few of them, due to zoning restrictions.
Rather than defend restaurants, we need to approach the Protectionist Dilemma in the same way that we watch a nature program on Discovery… Nobody feels great when they see a family of zebras getting eaten by a lion. But, what are we supposed to do? Send dentists into the Serengeti and de-fang all the lions?
The reality is that food trucks have discovered an evolutionary advantage over brick-and-mortar restaurants.
They have figured out that a lot of office workers don’t want to sit at a restaurant and eat. Most of them, it appears, just want to pick up their food and move on with their day. They don’t need tables. They don’t need a restroom in the back. They don’t need to eat off a porcelain dish. They don’t need to pay a waiter to serve them. And, most importantly, they don’t need the food truck to still be there during dinner hours, long after they have commuted back home.
Perhaps some of the restaurants in Soma will go out of business and make way for more office space, which is dangerously hard to find right now. Now, that would be useful.
And, let’s face it, who hasn’t seen this coming? It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the concept of “dining together” has been on a steady decline for almost a century. In fact, San Franciscans should know this best of all. I’ve lived in the city for seven years, and I have had five homes in that time — all of them Victorian or Edwardian apartments. And what features distinguish these old homes? Huge dining rooms (that people now use as bedrooms) and tiny bathrooms. Buy a newly-constructed condo, and you will find palatial bathrooms and non-existent dining rooms. It would seem that people prefer private space to group eating.
And this trend has transferred from our private space into our public sphere. We don’t want to dine with our co-workers. We would rather grab a sandwich from a food truck, and go surf the Web in the park, or use the precious free time to make appointments and check in with our dog walkers. Sometimes we take the gyro back to our desks so that we can pump out our work and get home an hour early.
So then, doesn’t it make sense that some of these fungible, non-descript restaurants go the way of the Dodo? Do we really need brick-and-mortar delis, burger joints, and pizza parlors near our offices? No, we don’t. They serve the same quick, scrappy fare as a food truck, but with way more overhead and empty seats.
In fact, the only thing that I don’t like about food trucks are the long lines, and we know the best cure for that…
More food trucks.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]