Food truck idea stuck in first gear

For the first two months of the year, the area around the Promontory at Marina Bay hosted three food trucks serving burgers and truffle fries at street food prices.

This initiative, which ended on Feb 28, was part of an Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) trial to enliven the public spaces at Marina Bay. Now the three vendors have been given a chance to carry on until May, to allow the URA to better assess the viability of food trucks.

But while they are interested, certain issues are holding them back.

Ms Luan Ee, 49, who runs the Kerbside Gourmet food truck, hopes for permission to park in other areas in the Central Business District such as Shenton Way to capture more of the business crowd.

Old Chang Kee wants more marketing activities because the area "can be quite quiet... unless there is an event going on", said a spokesman.

The Travelling C.O.W owner Karen Cheng, 38, also hopes to create more awareness about her truck.

This is not the first time the URA has made a push for more food vehicles in public places.

In 2003, it conducted a one-year trial to get operators to set up in carparks under its Mobile Food Van Scheme.

But that fizzled out. Out of 33 vans, only one is still operating.

That same year, the National Parks Board (NParks) also launched a trial to allow food wagons in Bukit Batok and Changi Beach parks but this was discontinued in 2004.

Before food trucks can operate, they need a licence from the National Environment Agency (NEA) "to ensure that food sold is prepared and handled hygienically". Since 2003, NEA has given out 50 mobile food wagon licences but only five are currently still operating.

The reasons behind the lack of interest have not changed.

Having to apply for a venue permit before setting up shop at any specific location is a chore. Making it tougher is the fact that different government agencies run different public areas. It is not always clear who they should apply to, said vendors.

By getting permission to operate across a sizeable area, the trucks can move around to seek the best crowds.

Currently, events and private functions make up the bulk of the business for food trucks like Kerbside Gourmet and The Travelling C.O.W.

There are also strict rules on how they can operate. For instance, vendors cannot set up temporary chairs and tables for customers to dine on site due to NEA regulations.

Said Ms Cheng: "We hope we can eventually pull out chairs and tables. When people can gather and hang out, it's more fun and it adds to the experience."

Rising certificate of entitlement (COE) prices have not helped.

Restaurant Salad Stop! eventually decided against setting up a food truck because of the high costs involved. Director Adrien Desbaillets, 32, estimates that start-up costs can be as much as $200,000.

"I thought about the viability of having a food truck in schools or parks but the numbers just don't add up," he said. "COE prices kept going up and we had a manpower squeeze."

Makansutra founder KF Seetoh agreed that food trucks have very "high walls to scale, operationally". These include issues like start-up costs and the lack of a single agency to deal with food truck issues such as permits.

To encourage more food trucks, the Government could also look into having designated spots which provide water, electricity and gas for the trucks, added Mr Seetoh.

Logistics supervisor Goh Tian Peng, 50, who bought food from the Kerbside Gourmet at Marina Bay for the first time last Friday, said: "It's like a picnic experience. Being a food paradise, we should have this at more places."

kcarolyn@sph.com.sg


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