Food trucks of Melbourne II: Attack of the Clones

Posted by Ruth Brown on December 30th, 2011

photo by ratterrell on Flickr

I’ve been getting a bunch of hits for a post I did before I moved to the States called “Food carts of Melbourne (all four of them)“, looking at the small number of higher-end street food vendors in Melbourne. At the time I basically said I thought it was a positive trend and I’d like to see it grow. Apparently it has — in Sydney, the city is actively trying to make it grow — and that’s the reason I’ve been getting the traffic. But almost two years and about 13,000 kilometers later, I’m not so sure.

Phil Lees wrote a good post about this on The Last Appetite a few month back:

The depressing secret behind street food culture is that it exists because there is nowhere else to eat. In Phnom Penh, a good deal of the street food exists because it is too expensive for the average worker to leave their job and go home for a cheaper meal. Despite the backpacker authenticity myth, the bulk of it is as nasty as it is cheap; good street food is so rare that it is almost a euphemism. In Los Angeles, food trucks, especially the semi-permanent Mexican loncheras, offer an oasis in the food desert for factory workers and locals. If anything, they’re stuff white people like because they’re beacons of actual food in a grove of Olive Gardens or whatever pretend food is served in roadside mass-market chain restaurants. In Kuala Lumpur, street vendors develop symbiotic relationships with a cafe, multiple vendors clinging parasitically to a single coffee shop. In all cases, food trucks and street vendors tend not to compete with existing businesses because there aren’t any other existing businesses nearby. All are the result of local conditions.

Generally that condition is poverty, followed by richer people lionising food that poor people eat.

The unpopular Australian street foods are also the precursor to building a culture of street food but that hasn’t happened because unlike LA or Phnom Penh in the urban centres in Australia there is no shortage of great, easily accessible meals. There isn’t a footy frank vendor on every corner because good food is straightforward to find. In the absence of Michelin stars, many restaurants are awarded imaginary hats by our food press. There’s not even a shortage of good portable food from upmarket pork belly sandwiches to cheap sushi. Beyond the occasional cone of soft serve or post-Queen Victoria Market donut, there isn’t much of a market for heartier food served streetside when you can get a markedly better meal nearby and somewhere to sit and eat it.

I think he makes a good point, but also misses one key element of the street food fad in America: It coincided pretty much exactly with the Global Financial Crisis. At a time when unemployment was at its peak, getting a loan was incredibly difficult, and people were more financially disempowered than ever, a loophole in the food regulations of many cities that allow mobile food vendors to bypass most of the expenses and rules associated with opening a bricks and mortar eatery, provided a way for both cooks with no capital to start their own business, and for consumers without much spare cash to get (usually) good food for a (usually) affordable price. There are some really talented cooks and chefs in this city who never would have got out of low-wage line cook work, and many immigrants whose cuisines would never have seen the light of day, without this way to open their own kitchen on the cheap.

The media narrative has generally been that the audience for this stuff is “iPhone wielding hipsters” which, yeah, there obviously was/is an element of that (given there are now several Food Network shows about food trucks and Applebee’s has one, I think it’s fair to say no one actually considers them “cool” anymore), but I’ve been around quite a bit of this country now, and the people I see eating at food trucks are mostly office workers, teenagers, families… pretty normal folks. Truth is, good food that people can actually afford isn’t always easy to find in many cities in this country, even in the heart of downtown. The choice is usually quick, cheap junk food, or pricey and time consuming restaurants.

Yes, The Gap had a taco truck. No, I don’t know why.

That’s the “good” part. The negatives are that the marketplace has become overcrowded in many cities, and the low barrier to entry means that many people are opening businesses without the research or experience necessary to make it work. Multnomah County, the county I live in, issued 688 licenses to mobile food vendors last year. The numbers are slightly skewed because that includes little coffee kiosks and people who sell corn dogs at fairs, but still, it’s a lot. Too many, really. A lot of them aren’t that good. There are about 50 carts down the road from my house. I’d estimate over half of them aren’t very good. A lot of them will probably close this winter due to the natural drop in customers and tourists. Some will close because they realise the lifestyle isn’t as cool as they’d believed — long hours freezing your nuts off in the back of a van sucks. Some probably never calculated their food, rent or labour costs properly. Some thought they could do it as a part time job. Some didn’t bother to do any research and end up opening the eighth Thai cart on the one lot.

And not only is much of the food kinda shit, a lot of it is super unhealthy. The other big food trend that naturally came along with the GFC was a fetishisation of comfort foods — put bacon on it, deep fry everything, etc. For whatever reason, there is/has been a sort of legitimising effect of those foods when they’re served by an independent food truck with a clever name and locally sourced ingredients, instead of KFC. And there was also an element (also present in Australia) that it was somewhat counter culture to say “woo, butter!” in defiance of the diet food trends that had defined the preceding few decades. In turn, the media (and I’ll include myself in this, I’ve definitely done it) has paid far too much attention to this stuff because of its shock value and because it makes for easy linkbaiting online slide shows. As a result, Portland has vendors serving sandwiches stuffed with fries and bechamel sauce, burgers that come between two grilled cheese sandwiches, and deep fried pies. Food trucks became a really cheap and easy way to sell crazy carb and fat concoctions.

Another problem is the effect it can have on regular eateries. It’s less of an issue here because few of the vendors are mobile, but it has been an issue in LA, NYC, SF and others. The savings food trucks make on rent, electricity, employees, etc are (or should be) passed on to consumers by either offering cheaper food than bricks and mortar places, or better food for the same prices. That’s good if they’re parked in areas where there’s little good food to eat, or little portable food to go, but it can be an unfair advantage if trucks are able to park in front of direct competition—especially en masse. The catch is that a lot of trucks don’t want to go out to the parts of town that probably most need affordable, quality food. They want to park in high-traffic inner city areas which are often already well serviced by cafes, delis, and lunch spots.

photo by Roadsidepictures on Flickr

So this week I read that one of Melbourne’s new trucks is:

Gumbo Kitchen, a food truck focusing on the Cajun food of New Orleans, particularly the spicy stew traditionally served with rice, which gives this eatery on wheels its name. For the brainchild of Michael Cotter and Patricia Stanton, whose visit to New Orleans this year sparked the idea, Gumbo Kitchen’s chef Elvin Ho (MoVida Aqui and Bar Idda) will also turn out po’boys and the fried cornmeal dumplings known as hush puppies… At the end of last month, Cotter relaunched Camberwell’s Bar None.

It’s nice to see some under-represented regional US cuisine come to Melbourne (though I’m no expert, but I really don’t think po’boys or hushpuppies are technically “Cajun”. Po’boys are from New Orleans and New Orleans ≠ Cajun; hushpuppies I think you’d just generally call “soul food”. I could be wrong), but I don’t really understand why people who already operate a hospitality venue and a chef already working at good restaurants need or want to sell fried food out of a glorified Mr Whippy van.

According to its Facebook page, the truck parks on Sydney Rd Brunswick and High St Northcote (from what I understand, Darebin and Moreland councils are the only ones allowing food trucks at the moment). Another truck cruising High Street:

Le Sausage, a type of gourmet sausage sizzle on wheels, also operates in the Darebin area.

Laura Thompson and her partner chef Alex Talimanidis, formerly of A la Grecque at Aireys Inlet, put the van on the road in October.

….

Other chefs are considering jumping on the bandwagon, including Shane Delia of Melbourne’s St Katherine’s and Maha Bar and Grill. “I think if you could come up with a couple of quirky dude-food dishes it could be what your van is about,” he says.

Huxtable’s Daniel Wilson, meanwhile, is busy setting up HuxtaBurger restaurant, but says he has long been nursing an idea for a food truck.

Now, on the face of it, it’s all free market and free will. If chefs and restaurateurs want to be hot dog and sandwich vendors, and people want to buy their snags and sangas, then whatever. Here’s where it becomes an issue:

High Street and Sydney Road are both areas with lots of affordable take-out food options, much of it run by immigrants. So say I run a souvlaki store. I pay rent or rates, electricity/gas/everything bills, have multiple employees, pay more to put some chairs and tables on the footpath, probably even more to do a bunch of things I don’t know about. Then some chef from a well-known restaurant pulls a van up down the road from my shop. He doesn’t have half the expenses that I do. He’s either undercutting me on price, or using super fancy ingredients I couldn’t possibly afford because my overheads are much higher. Every food writer in the country is creaming themself over his truck (and having now read the majority of press about this from around Melbourne and Australia, it has been pretty over the top for what is a sum total of like 10 trucks and some food that sounds pretty fucking average). Is it fair? I dunno. But it’s something councils and consumers need to ask themselves.

Or scenario two: Enough councils hand out enough permits for this scene to grow unabated. There’s great chefs involved, and all this press buzz, so more and more culinary industry amateurs and people with less capital and backing decide to open their own. Then the hype, inevitably, ends. The chefs and media move on to the next fad. And all these people are stuck with failing businesses, serving mediocre food, which no one cares about, and unlike B&M owners, they can’t even sell their premises because no one else wants to open a food truck, either.

(none of this is a dig at any of the trucks mentioned, or any specific ones not mentioned—I live half a planet away and have no idea how or why they’re operating—just some hypotheticals)

So, here is my undoubtedly unwanted advice: Councils might want to consider capping how many permits they hand out to food trucks. They might want to make potential vendors actually put in a tender for these permits. And they might ask that those applications include a business plan that breaks down how they’re actually going to turn a profit. And they might even preference those business plans that are actually small timers looking to build their business into a bricks and mortar operation (because I do not know a single person who has run a food cart more than a year who doesn’t hate working out of a tin can and dream of going B&M; food trucks are not, for most people, viable long term businesses), and not, say, established chefs and restauranteurs who already own them and are just looking to make a quick buck off hype and low overheads. And then they might want to look at less fortunate areas in their districts where good/inexpensive food is actually needed and consider making trucks go there instead of the major retail strips and just the “cool” suburbs. And they may also want to consider how to handle businesses who own private parking lots allowing trucks to park in them, because that could undermine efforts to keep competition fair. And THEN they might want to consider what the applicants are actually selling, because even gourmet hush puppies, po’boys, hot dogs and burgers are about as healthy as pies and fish and chips and sending that stuff into food deserts could actually be a negative.

photo by Joseph Robertson

Phil Lees is probably correct that Melbourne, in general, doesn’t “need” a high-end street food scene. But if people are going to make it happen anyway, let it be a way for talented people who couldn’t otherwise open their own food business to do it, and let it benefit the neighbourhoods that really need some good food.

And to the media: Learn from America’s mistakes. Judge this food and these businesses as you would any other eatery. Stop writing about it all so breathlessly. You are, in fact, the ones who determine whether something becomes a flash-in-the-pan fad, or a cool, neighbourhood thing that retains some of its underground appeal.

  • EasternDave

    This is a good-to-great read for me as I have had little interaction with food carts.  You answered my curious side about two aspects of the cart proliferation… if they were all gourmet grills on wheels or not and what their impact is on brick/mortar cafe’s/restaurants around them.  Food carts fit into two scenarios for me; 1) driving along a busy street and there is a food cart pod and no parking.  My thought is how does any one stop and eat there?  And poof, I am a block away.  2) While waiting in line the visable menu prices are about the same I would pay in a brick/mortar eaterie… and they lose my business. Why sit in the cold for the same price as a heated cafe or restaurant? 

  • Den

    Oh to have a foreigner tell me about food in my city! :)

    I was in Malaysia last year and each day for lunch the people in the office would all hop into cars and drive for 20/30mins to some street cafe or similar to eat ‘the best’ soup/satay/seafood around. Food obsessed they were. 

    Anyway, many of these places started out as street vendors with a cart on the road side. Eventually they get to have a proper cafe if they are any good… and people travel for miles around to eat their specialty.

    … don’t see that happening in Melbourne. Looks like we do it a bit upside down. I see the next step here would be to have all those top chefs selling off franchise vans and the poor suckers cannibalising each other until they’re all run out of business – all it will take is one food poisoning.

    However I really think the High Street souvlaki restaurant can do with a bit of competition – that business model is very tired. 

    May the best place for me to get food win (unless I hate the outcome)!

  • Jo

    I went to Taco Truck (in Melbourne) for the first time this week. Pretty good food, but not cheap at all. One tiny taco for $6 or two for $12 with a bit of salad, so basically costs the same as the Mexican restaurant around the corner. It was nice to eat dinner sitting in a park for a change,  but mostly it seems to be a fad driven by the idea that it’s cool in places like LA and Portland so we’d better do it in Northcote too.  That’s just my two cents worth…

  • Aguyfromthecold

    Argument to protect the tired food cafe is so dated. History proved protectionism is only an aritificial delay.

  • Mo

    Food trucks in Melbourne have to pay rates the same as b&m. The difference being that they pay rates in every location. Not content with just rates in every council, in Yarra there is rates for for every place you wish to stop at 2k a pop. Less overheads than b&m is a myth.