Gas Stations, Food Trucks and DIY Districts (FTF II)

This series, Forward the Future, will intermittently consider the future of commercial activity within U.S. municipalities.

Our food choices are expanding, not only with the accelerating globalization of American food culture and dining choices, but new delivery platforms. While the classic fast food industry faces immense labor challenges, new entrants are presenting unprecedented opportunities for municipalities to create, revitalize or enhance community and economic development in local neighborhoods. Most prominent among these are gas station eateries and food trucks.

The Washington Post profiles the booming business of fresh gas station cuisines (Thai, Korean and Mexican instead of three-day old hot dogs and stale donuts):

“The Gorees invested thousands of dollars in the restaurant, instead of the hundreds of thousands it would have taken for a standalone place. They have no debt. The tables and chairs are from Ikea. They buy local food. The flowers on the tables are from the farmer’s market.”

The ‘new normal’  assumes many forms and foremost among them is the creative use of existing, under-utilized space. So-called “ugly” spaces, whether a run-down strip mall or a corner gas station, are being transformed not by major government development initiatives or big banking schemes but local elements. These local forces include both expansion-minded entrepreneurs and cost-conscious civil society elements, only the former of whom I will discuss today.

The most unproductive spaces of all within many municipalities are government mandated, free market abridging parking spaces. Most of these spaces exist because of maximal parking requirements that are a major drag on municipal productivity. They drive up construction costs, waste infrastructure taxes, harm the environment via impervious surface runoff and inflict many other ills well-documented by Donald Shoup in “The High Cost of Free Parking“. Recently, some of these spaces have been smartly used by food trucks.

Food trucks though face enormous regulatory hostility from local governments.

Even as their popularity has spread from major urban centers (SF, Portland, Boston) to smaller municipalities (Cary, Everett), the barriers to entry and stability have been almost uniformly erected by local governments. Bureaucratic inertia (rules written in the 1980’s), protectionist cartel mobilization (restauranteurs unreasonably view food trucks as existential threats), and complex, even conflicting regulations from different departments (Transportation, Public Health) continue to exact a heavy price from food truck operators. While they have organized and even crafted inventive solutions to common problems such as renting a private lot and offering transparent food safety assurances, their efforts in every city will only be successful if common citizens unite with uniquely qualified individuals and organizations such as the Institute for Justice to uphold free market principles and consumer choice.

Nevertheless, unless they are strangled in most locales by a noxious mix of government and incumbent businesses, food trucks are part of a changing work culture that meets an emerging market need.

“We’re knee-deep in the era of 15-minute lunch breaks and work days that extend far past our dinner times. The reality of ever-longer hours has cut across class lines. “

In the best case for a municipality’s development, food trucks and gas station eateries can even be a part of a DIY district, where inventive repurposing of existing space revitalizes under-performing areas of a municipality. A common thread of these larger projects is the removal of onerous government regulations, such as parking requirements and strict Euclidian zoning separation of land-uses, that greatly raise the cost of startups and impede synergies that develop from multiple combinations of “live-work-play-meet” market demands.

Most intriguingly for local or smaller businesses competing with their often subsidized competitors in national and regional chains, this is part of a longer trend since the Recession of what UNC  entrepreneurship professor Ted Zoller describes as:

“People, craving a genuine product, are turning to homegrown businesses and moving toward destinations that provide a sense of belonging to a community and the opportunity to be part of the scene…”