Food Trucks, Unite?

As Las Vegas’ mobile-food scene comes into its own, an effort to organize owners has met with a mixed response

food trucks

“It’s going to be a war zone,” one food truck operator confided. He was talking about one of the first public meetings of the Las Vegas Food Truck Association, a new group formed to organize and advocate for the city’s gourmet mobile eateries.

Similar coalitions have taken shape in cities around the country as the food-truck craze exploded over the past few years. The Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association lobbies for looser regulations and mentors truck owners, while theBoston Food Truck Alliance’s “Truck Tracker” website allows hungry Beantown residents to see at a glance which rolling restaurants are in their neighborhood.

But when four Las Vegas mobile food vendors formed a board of directors and this month announced plans to coordinate bookings in exchange for a yearly membership fee, concerns started flying in private conversations and on GroupMe, an app that truck owners use to communicate. Would the LVFTA’s founders favor their own trucks when scheduling events? Would they want a cut of the proceeds?

Why all the fuss? Las Vegas’ relatively small food-truck scene has until now been a chaotic, organic affair.

Of the 156 “mobile food units” permitted by the Southern Nevada Health District, LVFTA organizers estimate that between 40 and 50 are so-called “gourmet” trucks: social-media savvy, with splashy logos and innovative menus. In a way, food trucks offer the classic entrepreneurial opportunity. Barriers to entry are low, grit and sweat are mandatory, and the payoff can be substantial. Top trucks can gross between $250,000 and $350,000 per year and serve as trial runs for those who dream of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. (Locally, both mini-burger mobile Slidin’ Thru and Chinese bun masters Great Bao—now Fat Choy—have made that leap.)

Truck owners compete to secure coveted parking spots, tracking down event promoters and property owners, and negotiating for a chance to sling their fancy grilled cheeses or Asian fusion fare. Sometimes they fork over a fee or a share of the profits. Relationships are key.

“You strap on the boots and go out and get it,” says Doug Porter, whose 3½ years running Curbside Café make him a veteran of the local mobile-food world. “A lot of it is through word of mouth. Some of us have worked hard to get what we got, and I’m just not willing to turn that over to somebody else.”

But Porter and others do see benefits to organizing. While libertarian Las Vegas places fewer restrictions on food trucks than many other cities, owners still grouse about a rule banning them from parking within 150 feet of a stationary restaurant. If they were united, some wonder, could they get it overturned?

Others think an association could help bargain for lower prices with suppliers, fight back against event promoters that demand large fees to sell—or even give out microloans to new trucks.

Keith McCoy, an LVFTA board member and co-organizer of the monthly Downtown food festival Vegas StrEATs, says he hopes to one day convince Clark County to allow food-truck parking next to the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

“Those things only happen when you have official organizations,” says McCoy, who also works for Slidin’ Thru. “Every industry there is—whether it’s manufacturing, interior design, construction or law—they all have a reason and a desire to work together to better their industry.”

McCoy says he and his fellow board members, who include representatives of Sin City Wings, Sauced and Kona Ice, will likely hold off on managing parking spots after hearing objections from truck owners at the July 9 meeting. They also plan to scrap an unpopular, tiered membership structure with fees ranging from $500 yearly to a $2,500 lifetime affiliation for a simpler, less expensive system.

“This is new and different, so it’s going to get ugly, you’re going to throw ideas out and you go from there,” he says.

Messy though it may be, ultimately, both the emergence of the coalition and the drama surrounding it prove that Las Vegas’ food-truck industry is maturing. And that should put a smile on the face of any local foodie.

Update: The Las Vegas Food Truck Association announced July 23 that it had dissolved its board of directors and was setting up a process for food truck owners to elect a new board. Supporters also confirmed they are giving up, for now, on the idea of managing parking spots and event bookings. The association will hold its next briefing for mobile-food entrepreneurs September 9 at a location to be determined; mini-burgers will be served. 

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