The food truck industry is booming—and so is food truck crime
iStock / Iman Raza Khan
iStock / Iman Raza Khan
It’s hard to miss Seattle’s Cheese Wizards food truck, painted the way it is, in contrasting shades of yellow that form triangles like slices of deli cheese. Its owners, Bo and Tom Saxbe, often take orders while wearing wizard hats—serving up grilled cheese sandwiches with names like “The Goblin King” or the “Voldemortadella.”
The Saxbes opened for business in 2012, and Bo describes the first five years as “smooth sailing in every way.”
It was a good time for food trucks—a boom time, in fact. According to industry publication Mobile Cuisine, starting in around 2008, revenue for the food truck industry grew at just over 12 percent a year until 2014. That rise was spurred in part by a downturn on the brick-and-mortar restaurant side. The global recession had curbed disposable incomes for eaters and scared investors off from buying into larger-scale restaurant ventures.
That all changed two years ago. “There’s been an almost exponential increase in crime,” Bo says. “There’s a lot of things about the business that makes food trucks vulnerable.” First, their $5000 generator was stolen—easily the most valuable item on their food truck. “I’d built this cool wooden cover and it was wizard themed,” Bo recalls. The cover could lift right up “but the thieves spent an hour and a half disassembling everything, unscrewing every bolt.” Since then, their generator has been stolen four more times. Replacements are an expensive proposition for a mobile business with very tight margins. “At the end of the year, we’re scraping by on less than the federal poverty limit,” Bo says of the Saxbe brothers’ earnings. “But it’s fun and there’s some social respect and I get to set my own schedule.”
Earlier this year, Bo and other local food truck owners wrote a letter to the city complaining about the crime problem and the effect it was having on their business. “The group is unanimous that crime has never, ever, been this bad,” the Saxbes wrote in a letter that included stories from 14 other local food truck owners, who recounted generator theft, vandalism, cut gas lines, cash bags stolen in broad daylight, and even the theft of an entire catering van. “At the current rate, dozens of us will be shut down by the losses we are suffering due to increased criminal activity,” the letter read.
Bo says that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told him property crime as a whole hasn’t gone up. “But they don’t break crime off on food businesses from crime as a whole,” he says. It’s hard to do more to secure a mobile food truck than lock it behind gates in a lighted lot at night. “We don’t have a lot of capital to spend on security … we’re in the margins of industrial areas, edges of commercial spaces.” And these locations, while they may be more affordable than some more central or high-traffic areas, also make food trucks particularly easy targets for crime waves in places like Seattle, Austin, Portland, and in other cities where the truck trend has proliferated.
As Bo says of running a food truck, “It’s a fun business but it’s been a lot less fun with crime.”
It seems that wherever food trucks go, crime will follow. Food truck owners from Alaska to California and Virginia to Arkansas have experienced break-ins or outright vehicle theft, and thieves often hit more than one business in a single night.
Sometimes the details of these break-ins can sound comical, like when a man broke into an Austin, Texas food truck last year to help himself to some barbeque and a side of potato salad. Then there was the Florida man who stole a number of trailers as well as a food truck and buried them all underground in the hopes of creating a doomsday bunker. More recently, a Denver truck called “What Would Cheesus Do?” was stolen and found gutted a few days later, prompting pun-inspired news reports starting with lines like “They found Cheesus.” Yet what’s rarely mentioned in the coverage of these crimes, is what food truck owners are left doing to pick up the pieces afterward.
Roger Zapata, owner of Austin’s Evil Wiener food truck, which opened in 2011, had three years free from crime before his generator was stolen in 2014. Zapata had parked his truck in an open lot with poor lighting. “Even the police and insurance said to move to a gated lot with lights, so I moved,” he says, adding, “They cut a hole in the fence and removed my generator.” Evil Wiener is the only food business Zapata has ever run and he says that crime is a real—and unpredictable—problem. “It goes in waves … the first time I had [my generator] stolen I believe there were seven others stolen that year.” And he says that the wave is beginning to hit Austin again, with tales circulating through the food truck community of stolen generators, money, and iPads.
The cost of doing business in a food truck is a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to run a restaurant. Many new businesses purchase a food truck and have it fitted and ready to go for less than $50,000. But the loss from a break-in can be staggering for owners, especially those who don’t already know that they’re uniquely vulnerable. Zapata says he believes that trucks are targeted more often than restaurants for a number of reasons—and not just because they have to operate in unorthodox spaces. A broken windshield, grill, or generator can close a business for days while police reports are filled out and repairs are made. And there’s no backup. “If you lose one refrigerator in a food truck, you’re down,” Zapata says. “You might have issues with a brick-and-mortar but it doesn’t cripple your business.”
Martinus Setiantoko, owner of the Virginia-based Saté Truck, has experienced this first hand. Two years after he opened, Setiantoko decided to purchase a second large, expensive truck, hoping to expand his business. He dropped his new, bright red vehicle off for some repairs and woke up to a 7 am call from the police informing him that the truck had been stolen.
Setiantoko’s vehicle was located the next day, thanks to a post on social media. He had insurance, but it didn’t cover loss of business. “We were unable to operate for a year while we rebuilt the truck,” he says. And when they rebuilt, they built smaller. “I will never build an expensive truck again. Now, he says, they park all of their trucks in a safer lot, which eases his worry.
There is one major difference between crimes perpetrated in the Oregon food-truck mecca of Portland, and those committed in almost every other city in the United States. “Portland is very different because we allow food-cart pods to exist,” says Roger Goldingay, owner of Portland’s Cartlandia. “None of our carts are on a generator. If you’re dependent on a generator you’re very vulnerable.” Goldingay says that they’re hard to secure, either underneath or outside the vehicle, and they can be pried off. And for a burglar, he says, “you sell a $5000 generator for $500 and you’re doing alright.”
Until food-cart pods become more normalized, one potential theft deterrent might be for owners to invest in better trucks from the start. “If you use the right one it’s hard to steal,” says Jason Tipton, who owns East Coast Mobile Business Launchpad, runs a food truck building and manufacturing company, and owns a number of food trucks as well. He’s working with the National Food Truck Manufacturers Association to develop more standards for food trucks. “They’re not regulated how restaurants are,” Tipton says. “You have water and propane flowing through your kitchen and in some cases 20,000 watts of power, which is similar to brick-and-mortar, but many localities don’t require you to use licensed contractors,” he says. “That creates all kinds of risk for entrepreneurs trying to be pennywise when starting a business.” Tipton also says that many of the things people put in food trucks aren’t designed for trucks—whether it’s a generator, refrigeration unit, or the plumbing. Even if theft isn’t involved, if any one of the pieces that keep a food truck running gets broken, it means the business is off the road, losing money, and paying for repairs.
“Replacement costs and all that stuff adds up,” Tipton says. “It’s exceptionally expensive to get a cheap truck.”
“It’s a problem everywhere,” Paprocki says of food truck crime. He estimates that one out of 100 owners might have their truck stolen or experience some kind of vandalism in a given year. Since police departments don’t track crime by type—food truck theft versus restaurant break-ins, for instance—there’s no way to know for sure how frequently these crimes occur, but it’s a rare day when there isn’t a news of a food truck crime somewhere—in cities like Portland and Austin, especially. As of December 2017, market research firm IBIS World found that there were 4,056 food trucks in the U.S., which employed over 14,000 people. And the industry is projected to keep growing.
It’s hard to know when a food truck goes out of business whether it’s due to theft, the long hours in a hot truck’s kitchen, or simply a change of heart. Zapata says that since he started Evil Wiener he’s seen a number of big players fade away. “It’s a tough business to stay in and keep your heart in.”
“I would not continue with a mobile business if it happened again,” Zapata says. “For me it’s how hard I worked; how much of my life I put into it.” He says that even potential customers can sometimes seem to disregard his work, thinking that the cost is too high for food that comes out of a truck. “It’s a lot of time and effort that goes into doing what we do. If it’s that easy for someone to come and say, ‘I’m taking your generator’ It’s hard. It’s hard to keep going.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story identified Jason Tipton as owning a mobile business launchpad company. In fact, he owns East Coast Mobile Business Launchpad. We regret the error.