How not to deregulate
Food trucks, glamorously branded mobile kitchens or restaurants-on-wheels, became a symbol of deregulation during a highly-publicized marathon debate chaired by the president. The conference in March 2014 was supposed to discuss ways to revitalize the economy by doing away with barriers and regulations that choke the enterprenurial spirit.
The words of President Park Geun-hye carried a lot of weight and had an immediate effect on the sclerotic bureaucrats. They acted fast. The automobile control law and food safety codes were revised to allow heating on vehicles in just 10 days. By August, food trucks were allowed to do business in public parks and areas along streams and river banks. The government congratulated itself by saying it helped create jobs for more than 6,000 people and added 40 billion won ($3.67 million) in new business to the economy.
A year later, where are the food trucks? Where are those 6,000 newly employed hash-slingers? The food truck industry, in fact, is moribund. There are just four licensed food truck vendors across the nation and they are barely surviving, harassed and endlessly threatened by brick-and-mortar restaurants and unlicensed competitors on the streets. It is an embarrassing result for the president. The government tried to make up for its failure by putting food trucks on university campuses. Their business was embellished as so-called “startups-in-training” under the sponsorship of large companies.
Despite all the fanfare, the food truck business failed because they couldn’t conduct their business. First of all, they are strictly banned in central city streets that have lots of workers and passersby. Although they are technically allowed in public places such as parks, and recreational areas, they aren’t welcomed by the already established convenience stores, snack bars and fast-food stores that pay taxes. Local governments do not want to upset the fixed vendors by inviting trucks to compete with them. The food truck startups have fallen victim to half-baked and frivolous policy-making done in front of cameras rather than out in the field.
The 2015 American feature film “Chef” directed by and starring Jon Favreau, famous for directing the “Iron Man” series, offered a mouthwatering experience for food lovers around the world. Favreau plays a chef who, after a public argument with a food critic, quits his job at a famous restaurant in Los Angeles and returns to his home town of Miami to fix up a food truck. He rediscovers family happiness and his culinary talent on the road. The story was based on Roy Choi, a Korean-American chef who gained prominence with gourmet Korean taco truck Kogi, who co-produced the film and prepared all the food in it.
But fairy tales are not real life. American food trucks offer food at half the price of brick-and-mortar restaurants. They move around a lot and turn out food made from fresh material within minutes. The success of the mobile food business in America is, surprisingly, partly due to regulations. Food trucks became an experiment for deregulation here but they are bound to stringent regulations in America.
For food safety and hygiene, the vendors must prepare their food in a kitchen designated by individual states in America. Garbage must be discarded in designated areas and vendors must provide toilets and parking spaces within 100 meters of their business locations at their own expense. They face routine, surprise inspections in more than 100 categories and are scored in grades. If they get the lowest grade of a D, they are stripped of their permits. They also cannot stay at one place for more than half an hour or an hour depending on the individual state. The food truck business is hardly footloose and fancy free. Food truck owners in the U.S. must pay annual taxes.
Kogi Korean BBQ in the U.S. publicizes the locations of its fleet of fusion-food trucks through Twitter or other SNS platforms. Food trucks in Korea can get into trouble with authorities if they engage in marketing through SNS. The Internet blogs of food truck owners are filled with stories of being harassed by restaurant and chased by authorities. Hundreds of custom-built food service vehicles are up for sale on the Internet. Their owners are giving up on that dream. The president may have wanted to help them out. But making it easier to renovate vehicles and allowing them to do business only where customers are scarce wasn’t exactly a winning strategy.
Many advanced societies are reforming regulations instead of chucking them out. Instead of doing away with regulations, restrictions are being revised to be more practical. Policy-makers thoroughly study who benefits and loses from the changes. They examine foreign cases. I’d like to ask whether local authorities went through such trouble before promoting food trucks. They must have been dazzled by the colorful and trendy food truck fad in Los Angeles and New York. The food truck tale could have had a different ending if they had scratched the surface.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 7, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho