Food trucks are a bit of a silver bullet for urbanists, because they add to street activity without triggering many of the externalities of new construction. In a survey of food truck policy in the Pacific Northwest published just about everywhere, Eric Hess  says Seattle has not achieved food-truck nirvana:

Have the rule changes panned out? Not yet. Since July, the city issued seven new permits for food trucks—defined in Seattle as self-powered vehicles with kitchens onboard—to vend from public streets, and six permits for food carts—think hot dog vendors or push carts—to vend from sidewalk spaces. The numbers don’t signal an explosion of street food. In fact, the number of food cart permits actually dropped a bit since the new regulations took effect…

In Seattle, street food is also on the rise, but largely missing from dense, walkable neighborhoods where it has much to offer. The city lifted many archaic rules, but there’s more to be done.

Erica Barnett follows up with a little more, including this analysis from Sally Clark:

Basically, [Clark] said, she has no idea. One theory, though, is that scarce street parking makes it more profitable for parking-lot owners to use them for parking than lease them to food trucks. “The thing is, actually think seven or eight is a good number for people who want to serve in the parking area or in the sidewalk,” she adds. “It’s just not all that well tested in Seattle yet.”

In the end, thought, I think Yglesias asks the right question: is this really a failure of the rules?

 By tripling fees and giving bars and restaurants veto power over where trucks can operate, it sounds as if the goal of the Seattle government was trying to make sure that the growing nationwide popularity of food trucks doesn’t pose a competitive threat to existing Seattle restaurants. That relatively few trucks are opening under the new regime is a sign that the rules are panning out as intended, not that they’re failing. The question for Seattle’s voters and public officials is why they think that protecting the profits of incumbent business owners should be a goal of regulatory policy.

48 Replies to “Seattle Food Trucks Underwhelming”

  1. In a simple review, which activity would potentially and consistently generate more tax revenue for city? Which “location” has utilities to bill directly, contractors and permit fees to bill, equipment, furniture, inventory and more employees?

    I can understand why there would be some concern from brick and mortar based venues that they couldn’t compete with food trucks given huge fixed costs they incur. Not sure if its good policy or not to legislate a protection. I can see a case for it.

    1. I think those that want to legislate barriers to entry need to come up with some pretty good reasons. Why do we need to buy our food from brick and mortar buildings? When I am hungry, the primary concern I have is getting food in my body, everything else is secondary. Yes, some people would like a climate-controlled environment that provides tables and bathrooms… but that is not a requirement to obtain food. Some people just want to buy food and go back to their office, or enjoy it while sitting in a park or walking to their destination. If we are going to enact regulations that limit these options, there better be a good reason.

      1. Start charging property tax on any public right-of-way that is used by private individuals for property (vehicle) storage. What would that piece of land rent for if it was under a skyscraper or a hotel?

      2. Climate control and bathrooms aren’t just for you and me mr. smarty pants. These issues are about working conditions. If you get a job with a food cart, you’re stuck at a hard job without a bathroom.
        Now I agree with you about the food but look around you and think of other people when considering your argument, not just your own needs.
        I welcome a better written argument from you proving me wrong that takes the needs of minimum wage workers into account. Not the one you just wrote that only considers you at your cushy office job. And don’t try to preemptively argue that only the owners are in the truck.

      3. I hail from Portland (land of plentiful food carts), but I do not work in an office downtown. I frequent the carts when I am down there, however.


        I completely agree. We should charge for the space used. In Portland, most carts congregate in private parking lots, where they pay the owner for the space they use. The same should go for temporary trucks. If they park on the street, they need to pay just as any other car would. If you think this amount isn’t enough, then the city is underpricing street parking and should implement market-based rates, like the SF Park system.


        Working conditions are tough for many kitchen workers, not just in food trucks. I could get behind regulations for working conditions in food service, but these need to apply equally to trucks and restaurants. In my experience, the vast majority of food carts in Portland are operated by their owners, and then one or two additional employees that are sometimes family members, sometimes not. It is my perception that the working conditions are not much worse than what most workers face in restaurants. Yes, the space is more cramped. No one is going to argue that. But honestly, if the conditions are so terrible, why are food carts so incredibly popular as a business venture here in Portland?

      4. Chris I,

        I’m glad we agree on the working conditions issue. I’m for food carts if the rules for restaurants and carts are reasonably the same considering the circumstances. My good friend owns a food truck here in Seattle and spends his time moving it back and forth from Starbucks to Microsoft for lunch time.
        I’m sure food trucks are popular as business ventures in Portland because they make money or are a good low cost way to start before investing in a brick and mortar restaurant. That’s different from being popular to work in, Portland has a massive supply of out of work people aged 21-40 who need jobs that pay any cash (more than enough from my profession alone, unemployment for young architects in insane in Portland). Would you rather sling gourmet burgers from a high-end food cart or from the kitchen at Higgins?

      5. So, are you arguing for the devolution of cities into hodgepodges of adhoc night and day markets? No worries about sanitation, security, insects? Should we design our cities with Bazaars and squares for this purpose?

        I think it’s ironic that the history of cities is our distancing ourselves from the wild, to reduce our risk of disease, to increase our security (from outsiders) and to inspire people with the arts and aesthetics. Yet, there is a mindset I find prevalent here that says, none of that is important. What’s up with that?

      6. So, are you arguing for the devolution of cities into hodgepodges of adhoc night and day markets?

        YES. Please! Street markets and bazaars are AWESOME and their lack feels sterile and bland by comparison. Have you never been to one?

        Though I would use ‘democratization’ rather than the perjorative and prejudicial ‘devolution’. Remember, all species living today are precisely as highly evolved as humans, having been subject to evolutionary forces for precisely the same amount of time. Notice that many vibrant cities worldwide boast day and night markets.

      7. In most every country I’ve been to with a good street food scene, my favorite food from that trip was the street food. I still dream of someday having those crepe-like things with the fried cracker they make on the streets of Shanghai. (no, that cart would never pass King County Dept. of Health requirements)

  2. “The question for Seattle’s voters and public officials is why they think that protecting the profits of incumbent business owners should be a goal of regulatory policy.”

    I don’t think they are wanting to protect the profits of business owners as much as not wanting to piss-off campaign donors.

  3. Ok, so just call me the Official Irony Identifier (OII).

    Your point is that that these transit rich, dense walkable neighborhoods are the ne plus ultra.

    But, for some reason, they are so lacking in places that people want to eat at that a motorized vehicle, using highways to get there, has to appear to provide reasonably interesting culinary delights?

    Why not just drive to where the good food cheap is instead…like at the Food Court in Southcenter?

    1. Did you just describe Southcenter food court food as “good cheap food”? Are you joking?

      1. You might be new here. Stick around for the hydrogen/fuel cell and “Kent is a New Urbanist’s wet dream” posts.

      2. Sure, after the 2008 remodel:

        Southcenter’s five major new restaurants could make shopping an afterthought

        Southcenter unveiled a $240 million expansion last month that expanded its restaurant offerings. They now include: Bahama Breeze, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, Blue C Sushi, Bobalicious, Charley’s Grilled Subs, The Cheesecake Factory, Chicken Now, Daphne’s Greek Café, Dukes Chowder House, Ivar’s, Joeys Grill and Lounge, Johnny Rockets, Kudo Beans, Nordstrom Café, Olive Garden, Panda Express, Racha Thai & Asian Kitchen, Rainforest Café, Red Mango, Sarku Japan, Sbarro, Subway, Sushi Itto Go and Thai Go.

      3. On the one hand, as far as mall food goes, I was overall impressed with South Center’s offerings. And indeed, I’d be rather happy if Link stopped at its doorstep.

        On the otherhand, compared to innovative and original fare you find in “real” cities, the “spec” nature of the restaurants at malls reminds me of the review of Olive Garden by a Fargo ND food critic that has gone viral…

      4. +1 My friends brought me to the place where you use a special food court money. Strange system, but amazing food.

      5. “Oh, and the 150 from the bus tunnel will take you there from downtown about every 20 minutes!!”

        Hmm.. 45 minute bus ride to get from North Seattle to downtown, plus ten minutes waiting, plus ~30 minutes on the 150 bus…

        Not worth it. It’d rather eat somewhere just as good, if not better, that’s close enough to walk to.

    2. Let’s see –

      If a food truck drives to a neighborhood, the interested 500 people can all walk to the truck for food.

      Or those 500 people can get in 500 cars and all drive to Southcenter.

      You tell me which one is more sustainable/environmentally friendly.

  4. I think the working conditions argument is a red herring. We can study it if you’d like, but I see most of these food trucks (and smaller carts) as sole-proprietorship businesses or at least family-run. Should there be bathrooms available for these people, sure. But we have public restrooms for a reason. Portland seems to solve this problem by grouping the stands so that they can share facilities.

    Moreover, the competition thing is overblown as well. Eventually, brick and mortar businesses will adapt and learn to compete on separate value propositions. Seating, ambiance, quality, service, etc. all matter to at least some customers.

    1. All of the food carts in Portland don’t seem to be harming the local restaurant scene at alll.

      In the Seattle area we have the example of both Marination and Skillet (along with a couple of taco trucks) opening brick and mortar locations after starting as food trucks.

  5. It’s worth noting that Portland food carts are generally not mobile, unlike Seattle ones, so they are definitely different beasts.

    Anyway, this is generally good news to me: I don’t think the fattest people in the history of the world need lower barriers to finding and buying food, or less social stigma about eating everywhere and anywhere.

    There’s a strong correlation between bad food culture and obesity, which is why the skinniest developed countries (France and Japan) not only have the best food, they have the strongest, most ritualized eating habits.

    1. I see the opposite with regards to food carts. The existence of food carts and trucks i strongly correlated with denser, more active neighborhoods. Yes, they do reduce the social stigma of eating anywhere/anytime. Unfortunately, the prevailing food ritual in the U.S. involves auto-centric fast food restaurants. When I think about American obesity, I picture a fatty in an SUV waiting in the drive through at McDonald’s, not the hipsters waiting in line at the Vegan Waffle Cart.

      1. Of course, what is the center piece of Seattle’s densest neighborhood? Dick’s. And our own Oran has observed that when ULink opens, hungry huskies will find it easier to get to the capitol hill one than the wallingford one.

      2. I see the opposite with regards to food carts. The existence of food carts and trucks i strongly correlated with denser, more active neighborhoods

        The places I see food carts/trucks the most are 1) Microsoft Campus in Redmond (not urban or dense), 2) Kent/Renton Valley (not urban or dense) and 3) around SLU (getting there).

        I don’t think mobile restaurants create density or walkability.

      3. Like I said, these are different than the Portland ones: those are completely walkable and help urbanism precisely because they don’t move.

      4. Food trucks aren’t walkable or not-walkable; walkability is a feature of the entire area. Consider 45th St in Wallingford, where there are a couple food trucks. Their existence doesn’t mean Wallingford is turning into Southcenter Mall, nor SLU, nor downtown Portland. It doesn’t mean Wallingford is devoid of restaurants (far from it!), nor that 45th St is an impromptu bazaar.

        Wallingford remains largely as it was before the food trucks showed up: a post-streetcar streetcar suburb, quite walkable, modestly dense and not particularly intense. The food trucks have simply taken some underutilized parking lot space and provided more restaurants, quickly and with low capital outlay (in a time when capital isn’t easy to come by).

      5. Those are the good kind of food carts: more or less permanent. The five I saw at Microsoft Campus today might as well be fast-food joints.

      6. Some of the food carts at the Microsoft campus are just a temporary replacement for some of the regular cafeterias being closed for construction.

    2. Note that Japan (like many other places in Asia) has a long and still very active tradition of food stalls, most obviously at festivals, but also just sitting on the sidewalk in popular places to capture the commuter crowd; often they even have some seating. Korea is the same way (and judging from movies, so are China/Taiwan).

      [The food you can typically find there is generally more tasty than what you get from a typical food truck, but I doubt it’s really all that much healthier…]

      1. Let me assure you, walking around eating or sitting on the sidewalk eating randomly throughout town are both considered bad manners in Japan (outside of festivals). The ones with seats are much more like Portland-style ones, which, again, are really just little outdoor restaurants without bathrooms.

        We really should be encouraging those, but none of them are anything like the picture in this post, and those I am not a fan of.

  6. I think land price has to come into the equation. Seattle parking rates are higher, thereby driving up what food trucks would have to pay for land, and existing surface parking lots are rapidly disappearing via redevelopment. Outside one or two blocks in downtown Portland, most carts are set up on the eastside where there is a lot of underdeveloped, marginally valuable commercial land along arterials.

    1. The highest density of foodcarts is still the central business core. You do have a point about surface parking, there is quite a bit of that in downtown Portland. It is rapidly declining, however; being replaced by food carts or buildings.

  7. I love the food truck parking lots in Portland- so much better than just a parking lot and the variety is wonderful. I don’t know what sort of fees they pay compared to Seattle, or if there are rules about veto power from neighboring businesses. I do have much respect and sympathy for the small businesses that may find themselves competing with low overhead trucks, and can see sound public policy reasoning for favoring (at least to some degree) long term investment in a neighborhood over opportunistic and temporary business investment. If I owned coffee shop and had built a client base over several years, and a coffee cart set up on the sidewalk in front of my shop one day, I might be a tad miffed. Call that protecting profits, but there are businesses that I would hate to lose and be left with a cart in their place.

    That said, carts and shops are on a continuum of opportunities for small businessses, and getting the right balance is key to creating an environment for small businesses to grow into community assets.

    1. I think the customers are the only ones who should be making any judgements: “normal” restaurants (inna building) will be preferred to the degree they offer more value to those customers. [and if they don’t offer more value, of course, who cares if they go out of business…]

      The city should be charging appropriate fees for the use of public space and amenities, of course; I suppose setting those fees is the hard part … (but they know the cost of land in the area, so…)

  8. All I will say is that I have mixed feelings about food trucks.

    More importantly, while I find the post interesting, I’d really like to know why we’re discussing land use/business strictly instead of its relevance to transit. Maybe I’m missing the link, but “urbanism” isn’t good enough–that is unless the STB is changing to something more broad and not focused on transit. Just saying, this is very tangental. Not that I have a problem with talking urbanism generally.

    1. From the Who We Are page: “Seattle Transit Blog is 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that covers transit news for the the greater Seattle area. The blog also focuses on density and the urban form, and other forms of alternative transportation like bicycling and walking.”

      I’d argue that the better you design a city, the less you need transit.

  9. The reason that Seattle’s food truck scene hasn’t (yet) thrived is a lack of congregation. If you want Maximus Minimus or Mr. Snout or Lumpia Land etc. – you have to find out where they are on a given day and hunt them down. You also have to hope that they show up and you don’t waste a trip. Portland has several locations where food trucks congregate – offering choice and variety in known locations. We don’t have that here.

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