How Utah puts food trucks in idle

Utah food trucks serve everything from fresh lobster rolls to gourmet pizza. Options abound, but customers come for more than just meals and desserts.

“It’s not just food,” says Taylor Harris, founding partner and general manager of the Food Truck League in Salt Lake City. “It’s ‘food-tainment.’”

He says mobile restaurants bring neighbors together in a fun environment where they can interact directly with food entrepreneurs, who offer dishes unavailable anywhere else. “These are locally run businesses that are free to experiment and try new things,” Harris says.

Unfortunately, some Utah cities and towns throw up roadblocks to keep food trucks out. Despite the passage of a 2017 state law designed to prevent redundant inspections and permits, so food truckers would not have to go from jurisdiction to jurisdiction paying fees, some municipalities continue to do their own thing.

Other jurisdictions, including Salt Lake City, initially complied with the state law. But local code enforcers later found loopholes. As a result, Utah food truck owners must navigate multiple regulatory systems that can change when they cross political boundary lines—or when new health officials come into power.

“The reform relied somewhat on the good faith of local officials,” Harris says. “Most cities are on the same page now, but some cities are trying to maneuver around it.”

Utah House Bill 146 would plug the gap by making all food truck inspections and permits reciprocal across the state. “If you get approved in one city, you would be approved everywhere,” Harris says.

The measure would benefit everyone, including brick-and-mortar restaurant owners and local tax collectors who sometimes see food trucks as a threat. Such opponents routinely claim that food truck growth forces restaurants out of business, but new research finds otherwise.

Food Truck Truth,” a report published Feb. 10, 2022, by the Institute for Justice, examines data from every U.S. county over a 12-year span and finds that food truck growth is not followed by brick-and-mortar restaurant decline. Specifically, the number of food trucks one year has no effect on the number of restaurants the next year in the same county. Both sectors generally grew over the report’s study period of 2005 to 2016.

The report also finds that the food truck industry, which took off after the Great Recession in 2008, remains relatively small. Even in Utah, which saw a second spike in activity following the 2017 reform, the data suggest that mobile food businesses pose little or no risk to the restaurant industry.

Harris is not surprised. His experience shows positive results for everyone when food trucks arrive in a community. Customers appreciate the variety, which attracts diners who normally might eat in their cubicles or stay home. The metaphorical pie grows, creating bigger slices of revenue for all business owners in the vicinity.

Food truckers understand the synergy, which is why they cluster together as much as possible, creating something akin to shopping mall food courts.

The entrepreneurs feed off one another, which drives innovation. Harris saw multiple examples during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns eliminated foot traffic in business districts. “Food truck owners hustle,” he says. “They go out and find alternatives.”

Rather than complain about their own lack of mobility, savvy brick-and-mortar restaurant owners have started experimenting with blended business models. Some restaurateurs invite complementary food trucks onto their properties. Others open their own food trucks, which they use to test ideas, increase exposure in new neighborhoods, and gather market data.

Meanwhile, some food truck owners open their own brick-and-mortar restaurants to create permanent bases of operation. Harris says one entrepreneur started with a single food truck in Utah and now has restaurants across the nation.

“People have a false dichotomy of trucks or restaurants,” he says. “But the correct answer is both. It’s the future.”

Utah lawmakers can spur the growth by closing loopholes in the 2017 Food Truck Freedom Act. Instead of forcing food trucks to idle at City Hall, the reform would allow restaurants on wheels to crank their engines and start rolling.

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia. Kyle Sweetland is an Institute for Justice researcher and co-author of “Food Truck Truth.”