Gourmet Food Trucks in LA Actually Cleaner than Restaurants?

Yesterday, the L.A. Times published an article entitled “The dark side of trendy food trucks: A poor health safety record,” which compared the letter grades given to food carts, food trucks, and restaurants across Los Angeles. A normal reader, who doesn’t know much about the food truck industry, would digest two things from the article:

  1. Food trucks are trendy

and

2. Those same trendy food trucks have a poor health safety record

And what is the overall conclusion a regular reader would come to? That all of the trendy food trucks in Los Angeles (i.e. the gourmet food trucks that have taken not just L.A., but all of America by storm) are unsanitary.

At first, the argument seems to hold, but the underlying statistics are flawed and therefore the conclusion is incorrect. Look at it from this perspective. Let’s say you wanted to evaluate what type of animal to get for a pet. You could infer from dog attack statistics that overall, dog attacks are more common than cat attacks. Pugs are a type of dog. But that does not mean that pugs are more dangerous than cats. This is called the fallacy of division.

If you read a bit deeper into the examples and the statistics discussed in the article, there’s no distinction made between the thousands of food trucks that have been operating for decades on L.A. streets and construction sites, and the new wave of trendy, gourmet food trucks that have started popping up in the last eight years.

To be clear, both groups of small business owners are extremely important to the local economy, but they are in fact two distinct types of businesses. They typically serve very different demographics and more importantly, they operate under very different business models. The first group tends to service a regular route or park their truck at regularly scheduled stops. Plus their price points are lower, as you might expect to pay anywhere from $4-$7 for lunch (and that includes grabbing a soda or water).

The second group — the gourmet, trendy food trucks — are what you see on the Food Network. Lobster rolls, foie gras ice cream sandwiches, Korean BBQ tacos, and gourmet burgers grace those menus. They service private events, cater to offices, music festivals, sporting events, and rotating street service. Lunch from one of these trucks is usually about $9–$15. Additionally, these trucks are typically known for their brands and frequently have goals to expand into brick and mortar restaurants. Some of them now even make products sold on the shelves of our grocery stores.

Neither of the above categories of operators is objectively better than the other, but they are different. The only similarity they share is in the equipment they use — the food truck itself. The problem with the underlying statement used to construct the logic of the article is that it incorrectly lumps all truck operators (using a food truck as service equipment) while calling them all trendy and gourmet. The conclusion presented in the article doesn’t hold up when you break down the food truck category into route trucks versus gourmet trucks. According to Matt Geller, CEO of the SoCal Mobile Food Vendors’ Association, less than 3% of the trucks that are members of the association in Los Angeles County received B grades or lower. That would make the subset of gourmet food trucks actually better performing and more sanitary than restaurants per the statistics in the article… a completely different storyline. Actually the exact opposite storyline.

Maybe there are nuances in the breakdown of restaurants or food carts as well. It is also possible that food trucks in the SoCal Mobile Food Vendors’ Association perform consistently better in health ratings than gourmet food truck non-members. It should be more closely examined. This investigation has a responsibility to the reader to provide factual evidence to arm readers with the power to make the best possible decisions and if necessary, help business owners understand how to improve their businesses by learning where they fall short. In this case, by presenting a finding incomplete of detailed analysis, neither is accomplished.

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