Greater City Providence

A likely unpopular take on Food Trucks

Bool BBQ truck
Photo (cc) stu_spivack

I’ve been watching the slow emergence of Food Truck culture in Providence and have mostly been happy about it. The Food Trucks popping up thus far have good food, they bring a certain cachet to the city, they are hip, young, fun, all the things Providence wants to be. However, in the back of my mind, I’ve been thinking about some of the things I don’t like about the Food Truck movement.

Payton at west north articulated my reservations pretty well:

I’m know it’s so very trendy, but I really don’t understand the fascination with littering Chicago with food trucks. I’ve found them quite annoying in NY and LA:

  • they don’t pay rent for the valuable public space they take up
  • they unfairly compete with fixed-premise restaurants, particularly since Chicago suffers from many miles of empty storefronts
  • they only go to trendy areas which already have lots of shops and foot traffic, thereby merely overcrowding existing transient hotspots and potentially preventing new areas from emerging
  • they leave clouds of diesel fumes and noise in their wake, since they run generators even when idling
  • they generate mountains of trash in said areas’ already-overflowing trashcans, since there’s no capacity for onboard dishwashing and few sidewalk recycling bins
  • they’d be yet more unwieldy vehicles careening through the streets, killing people in crashes.

I certainly don’t dispute the overall goals to have broadly available, inexpensive food and easing the way for entrepreneurs to open foodservice businesses. However, these goals frankly have nothing to do with adding more smelly trucks to already choked streets

Payton has a follow-up post expanding on his points above which I encourage you to read.

Like I said, there is something that really pleases me about the Food Truck movement, but the points Payton brings up bother me. Really, the biggest part is that we have so many vacant storefronts. A truck pulls up, creates some excitement and leaves. An occupied storefront contributes to the street activity always, think Farmstead on Westminster.

There are of course real barriers to opening a food based business in a brick and mortar location in Providence, which probably contributes to the quick adoption of food trucks here. One is regulation. Everyone I’ve talked to who has opened a business in Providence, or those whose business it is to get businesses to come to Providence, agree that the regulation is confusing and onersous, and discourages business creation. I’ve heard people who have located businesses here from away say they would never do it again and would tell others not to, not good.

The other barrier is the spaces themselves. Especially Downcity, but throughout town, there really aren’t many small hole in the wall retail spaces available. The kind of space where someone who runs a Food Truck might opt to settle down permanently. A counter and a few stools, those spaces don’t exist. So would-be restauranteurs are forced to pay rent on greatly outsized spaces that they don’t need.

I’m not saying Food Trucks should be banned, far from it. What I would like to see is, the city thinking about ways to encourage other forms of street food, be they micro-storefronts, push carts, Food Trucks, or something else.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • On the other hand, food trucks can expand the appeal of an existing spot. For example, if you like the Chez Pascal truck fare, you could be convinced to eat there sometime.

  • Jef, I just got back from Portland, OR this week and saw a good use of space involving food trucks and surface parking lots.

    I know that you have written about the dead space in surface parking. Adding food trucks around the perimeter of a lot gets them off the street and creates foot traffic without adding a new building. Maybe this is a good interim step before developing the parking lot?
    “there are almost 400 carts around Portland, most of them clustered into “pods” that ring parking lots”

    See the photos here:

  • Good post. I’d considered the issue of the food trucks using inefficient generators, but I hadn’t thought of the other issues of unfair competition, lack of rent or property taxes. I guess we are in essence subsidizing these trucks by allowing them to operate on our streets without paying for the privilege.
    Still, I’d be so happy to see a California-style burrito truck parked downtown (as long as it eventually moves to a permanent location). ((again))

  • Jason:
    I think the Portland model you show would be a good interim use a parcel of Route 195. Being near J&W, the new Med School, the proposed Nursing School, and the nightclubs, it really can’t go wrong. If we did that, I’d want to see services available on site, electricity at least (bathroom facilities would be needed somewhere too), so that each truck wouldn’t have to be running a generator all day.

    I wouldn’t exactly say the advantages the mobile operations have are unfair, people run the businesses they can afford, and if one can afford a food truck, it is not really an unfair advantage over a traditional restaurant, it is just a different business plan. I worry that at least a subset of the food truck owners (here or elsewhere) are opting for trucks because a real store involves too much red tape and the spaces are not available to suit people’s needs. If there is something we can do to fill empty retail space, then we should be doing that.

    Issues of running generators, driving your whole damn business around with you, creating trash, etc. are secondary (and that is not to say that every food truck creates all these problems either).

  • With a traditional restaurant if you get no customers you are screwed because you signed a lease for a year. With a truck you just pick a new corner to park.

  • We could take the $75MM that is being given to Schilling’s 38 Studios and divvy it up to the entrepreneurial restaurant owner…oh, but they don’t have any political ties or connections.

  • I am going to guess that aside from the financial considerations of signing a lease, not all spaces can be fitted out for a restaurant, especially after the station nightclub fire, there are some new strict rules about anything that makes food (ie., ovens/stoves) and residents (maybe offices?) difficult to co-exist. The food truck does make it easy for someone to set up a small business, that can’t be denied, and while there may be an “unfair” advantage over brick and mortar food locations, I wonder how many of them suffer because of food trucks…

    When a friend was looking into putting in a little coffee shop/breakfast place at the corner of Broadway and Marshall, it was determined it would be well over 100K to make it code compliant with residents above, and that was before any of the restaurant equipment was brought in and the space was built out for food service.

  • Have You Tried to find a decent bite after 11pm in PROVIDENCE?

    There is no competition for these trucks out there. Stop beating up on them just because they cater to a late night customer that you don’t stay up late enough at night to see.

  • It is really funny on how in this economy, some find it so easy to criticize any business. Darwins theory applies more in these times then ever. If you make a business decision, like getting a store front and giving the bizz a go then good luck. If a truck decides to use your corner as a “hot spot” and you cant figure how to benefit from it, well.. lets move on. Who in the world feels that they may decide where a business will be located for another person?! I fight constantly to make my truck and carts cleaner and better than the rest, and some one wants to round us up and stick us in an otherwise undesirable lot because our generators run? (my generator cost $4000.00 and runs quieter than your home vacuum cleaner) Lets talk about garbage… everywhere all the time cans overflowed waiting for the attention they greatly deserve, not a truck or cart in site. (I tote away all my garbage and have a dumpster on the commercial property I own, and pay taxes on.) Most vendors I know dream of opening a store front. This is the logical way to market yourself and get the much needed experience to run a food business in RI. (only second to France in the world with restaurants per capita) I don’t have a problem with stricter standards that get rid of the lower end hacks, but to have a chatty cathy and talk of other states that have successfully created “interim camps” for their food wagons and carts is just unfair. Go about your daily business and buy a nice meal from where you chose, but give us a chance to be on the menu.

  • One more thing, look closely at the pictures with the link that Jason provided. Look at the utility pole on the lower right corner of the lot, that supplies the electricity to the whole “camp”. With the cones and temp hazard tape all over , boy thats attractive not to mention a tripping or certainly other type of hazard. Look at the whole set up, it looks as if you are in Hong Kong! Not appealing at all. Check out some of those carts, we have carts on BROAD street on saturday night that look better than that. Go see, it is actually pretty cool. I take friends to see and they are all amazed at the site and sight! Would you be surprised to know that Restaurant Depot one of the largest suppliers of food and supplies top purchasing customer in RI owns only a chimmy truck? We are here to stay. Just like other businesses the bad ones certainly will disappear. There are rules in place to keep us away from each other and away from store fronts, check with the license division of Prov. she will tell you. Just because some choose not to follow the rules and others choose not to enforce them it makes us all look bad.

  • Thanks Joe B. for the perspective adjustment- also, consider this situation:

    A decorated chef loses his restaurant at the beginning of the recession. When people stop going out, or only come for apps and non-alcoholic drinks, your gross sales can take a devastating hit. A 3+ star restaurant of any size has overhead. A lot of overhead. Any idea what a kitchen’s monthly gas bill is? Lenders, either business or personal, also require a personal guarantor now. That means if you have to make the crushing decision to close up shop so you still have something left to feed your family, you are personally on the hook for the restaurant’s remaining expenses- LIKE YOUR LEASE. So, what are the options for this chef/restauranteur, now? Find a job with another restaurant, or completely rethink the picture. FYI salaries are down greatly even for top chefs. Restaurants know they don’t have to pay, or simply can’t pay well. Many have cheapened their menu and cut corners in quality to accommodate for recession-based losses and can get by with just an average head chef and no executive. An old, iconic Italian restaurant in Providence that rhymes with pa-plee-chee-o uses frozen fish and canned sauces. SO, what are the options for higher trained chefs being squeezed out of the job market? Go open another restaurant? With what loan? Other commenters have already expressed some of the issues with brick and mortar spaces in downtown Providence. The food truck movement makes it possible for us to still do what we do, while raising the bar in this microcosm of the industry. Finally, if a food truck parks in a trendy area where storefronts are empty, bringing attention, traffic and revenue to the street, HOW exactly does that hurt the value and desirability of the retails spaces for rent??? It’s building commerce around those empty storefronts. And maybe with the success of a particular food truck, that chef would be opening again in one of them.

  • I don’t get downtown or to the East Side or “trendy areas where storefronts are empty” very often these days. I don’t live near them and I don’t work near them. So that means I don’t see this… but I have to question why a food truck would be parked in an area that is loaded with empty storefronts. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me since that means there are fewer people to buy food from the food truck.

    I also have to wonder why these storefronts are empty. Wouldn’t it be better for the building owner to rent out the space at a lower cost and for a shorter term than to sit on a property that takes in no revenue waiting for it to make what they feel it should (which is presumably enough to at least cover the costs associated with owning that property, though likely to also turn a profit)?

    Food trucks are fun and trendy and a great way to test the market, but if a food truck is successful, why not open a small restaurant, even if it’s counter service (less overhead)? After all, the food truck needs a permit. The food truck uses gas and propane to run the kitchen (and to get where it needs to go). The food truck requires maintenance and people to cook and take orders… you get my point, right?

    So it seems like the real issue isn’t necessarily the overhead of a restaurant, but rather the rent being charged at these storefronts and the terms of the lease.

Providence, RI
Mostly Cloudy
5:14 am8:12 pm EDT
Feels like: 75°F
Wind: 7mph SW
Humidity: 52%
Pressure: 29.85"Hg
UV index: 2
64°F / 50°F
75°F / 54°F
79°F / 57°F