Mobile Vending: Gift or Curse for Brick & Mortar Retail?

Image courtesy of cityofboston.gov

Image courtesy of cityofboston.gov

by Lenny Pierce, Research Analyst

Once associated with cheap tacos prepared under questionable cleanliness standards, food trucks are now a trusted staple of gourmet lunch fare across the country—a trend that has some restaurant owners concerned. The combination of a food truck’s mobility along with its lower overhead costs could be making food trucks a real threat to restaurants employing bigger staffs who work longer hours, all the while paying those pesky property taxes or rent. With the food truck trend growing steadily in popularity, restaurant owners around the country are already expressing their distaste for the new lunchtime phenomenon.

“Businesses pick locations and business models around certain peak times…food trucks can poach that business and then pick up and leave,” Restaurant General Manager Gavin Coleman told the Wall Street Journal. Coleman manages The Dubliner, an Irish pub in Washington DC. Coleman added that in addition to competing with his pub for foot traffic, the food trucks also eat up much of the parking spaces for would-be customers when they line up on the curb.

In an effort to protect brick and mortar establishments, a handful of cities have regulations in place to restrict the operations of food trucks. Three weeks after opening her truck Duck N Roll in Chicago back in 2011, Amy Le received a ticket for operating 150 feet away from a wine bar. The law stated that food trucks must operate at least 200 feet from any restaurant. Le was naturally displeased, telling the WSJ, “It is a free market. Let the consumers decide when and where they want to eat.”

The new form of retail isn’t limited to food, either. Instead of ovens and fryolators, Nashville’s Trunk is filled with men’s and women’s clothing and accessories. Selling these items out of the back of a truck means Trunk can bounce around to different events around the city where potential customers will likely congregate. Kaelah Flynn, owner of another Nashville fashion truck called Honeybean Mobile Boutique, hopes that similar retail trucks could combine forces to assemble temporary shopping areas, much like food trucks build temporary food courts. “It would be great to build a small community of fashion trucks kind of like how food trucks are now,” Flynn told the Nashville Business Journal.

Despite growing concern, many think that mobile vendors—be it hamburgers or handbags—shouldn’t be considered meaningful threats to their stationary counterparts. Brad Daniel, owner of Bow Chow food cart in Missoula, MT, told Montana Kaimin that “if established restaurants are threatened by small-scale food vendors then they’re doing something wrong…we’re definitely smaller, but they have the infrastructure and finances to compete with us.”

To quell fears of retail disruption even further, many mobile vending operations serve as incubating stages for future brick and mortar locations. Boston’s own Chicken & Rice Guys are only a few months away from opening a brick and mortar location while maintaining an impressive fleet of four trucks. Popular Brookline eatery Rami’s, a Mediterranean restaurant at 324 Harvard Street, has gone the other way—adding a truck under its name that will serve the Boston and Cambridge areas. Flynn plans on making this same transition with Honeybean.

So is mobile vending truly affecting the way that retail establishments are approaching their real estate needs? The answer is yes, but only in small bursts for now. It will likely displace a very small number of brick and mortar shops, but as evidenced by Rami’s, Chicken & Rice Guys, and Clover (another Boston eatery with both restaurants and trucks) there remains an inherent value to a permanent locale for one’s brand. It seems mobile vending may not just be a way for consumers to diversify their lunch break, but a way for retail establishments to diversify their business models.

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