Food trucks play key role in region’s economic development

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By Marilou Shea

With all the hoopla surrounding the popularity of food trucks you’d think they were just invented. They weren’t, of course. Food trucks, or mobile vending, date back hundreds of years to when pushcarts began serving prepared foods.

Marilou Shea, Pasco Specialty Kitchen
Marilou Shea,
Pasco Specialty Kitchen

One source says this began in 1691 in New York City with the arrival of Dutch settlers. Fast forward to a more current data point: the guys who put gourmet food trucks on the road map as we know and love them today were KogiBBQ in Los Angeles and Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in New York City.

Because the barriers to launch a food truck are much lower than opening a bricks and mortar restaurant, they can be more attractive to fledgling entrepreneurs, foodies, chefs, second career couples and those on the cusp of retirement. An eligible unemployed or displaced worker dreaming to pursue a food truck business also has funding resource options available.

Initial start-up costs for a brick and mortar restaurant can run from $125,000 up to $550,000 according to the website RestaurantOwner.com. And that’s with no land purchase included. Conversely, starting a food truck business can set you back between $7,500 to $50,000 for a food cart, truck or trailer to $200,000 for a more high-end rig.

Food trucks play a role in economic development in our region because they encompass local commerce drivers and encourage new enterprises; support the growth of particular clusters of businesses and small- and medium-sized enterprises; and encourage the formation of new enterprises. They also generate jobs. Currently, there are about 125 mobile vendors operating in the Mid-Columbia.

There’s also a statewide association for them called Washington State Food Truck Association. Its mission is to serve as a central hub of communication and information, and catering referral and information source, as well as provide local and state-level proactive lobbying and advocacy.

Nationally, the annual growth rate in the food truck industry is at an impressive nine to 10 percent. As of last year it was about 31 percent for our area, according to Asja Suljic, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department.

Rex Richmond is a good example of a “locally grown” entrepreneur. He operates Rex’s Top Shelf. With more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, Richmond made his decade-old dream a reality a few months ago by deciding to pursue a food truck business.  A graduate of Mobile Vending University in 2015, it took him a while to make the decision.  He refused to go into debt for his dream so he sold his house and quit a 17-year food and beverage stint at Meadow Springs Country Club this last spring.

A savvy and creative cook with an index of more than 100 favorite recipes, Richmond describes his menu as gourmet, eclectic.  His dishes run the gamut from carnival chili dogs and freshly-caught king salmon personally chauffeured from Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, to locally sourced and perfectly trimmed filet mignon from Knutzen’s Meats in Pasco.

Western Restaurant Supplies (formerly Western Equipment Supplies) in Kennewick retro-fitted his food truck. Richmond is proud of the full-size commercial kitchen installed in the truck, which includes five sinks and three refrigerators. All told, he spent about $60,000 for the truck, half of that locally.

Richmond said he loves the flexibility and freedom running a food truck affords him. He’s not stuck in one location serving one menu to the same customers. He can accommodate catering events from 30 to 500.

His goal is to hire four people in the next year. Within three years, he’d like to open another truck and potentially double the number of employees depending on his rate of growth.

On the flip side, Richmond’s challenges echo the sentiment I’ve heard from many prospective food truck vendors: the permitting and licensing process is onerous, time consuming and confusing, not to mention regulations and codes are not very business friendly. It’s worth noting the city of Kennewick is making progress in the right direction with its adoption last October of a new ordinance for food-based vehicles. All cities could do with a review of their regulations and codes if they’re committed to fostering this growing food niche.

Food trucks are awesome for communities. They get customers out on the street and create a sense of community. In addition to using public space, food trucks offer local municipalities tax revenues and stimulate job growth, tourism and entrepreneurship. Small businesses are the major driver of the economy and food trucks tend to be micro-enterprises, with five employees or less. Food trucks serve as hyper-local small businesses to develop the communities they operate in. They hire local people, buy from local sources and sell to local customers. It doesn’t taste any better than that.

About Marilou Shea:

Food Love columnist Marilou Shea is the director of the Pasco Specialty Kitchen, creator of Food Truck Friday and Mobile Vending University and board advisor at the Washington State Food Truck Association.