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Lathrop policy clears way for Jack in Box mobile food trucks
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Here’s some food for thought for municipal leaders in the South County: What if corporate fast food companies piggyback on city efforts to “help people make a living” via food vending trucks?

In the age-old battle between highly regulated brick-and-mortar restaurants and food vending trucks more than a few politicians get a bit teary-eyed saying they want to help vendors because they are just trying to make a living. That, of course, is exactly what the brick-and-mortar folks are trying to do as it certainly isn’t a hobby for them.

Food vendors that include taco trucks can’t stay in one spot more than 10 minutes in Ripon or Manteca. But in Lathrop, they can linger in a commercial district for up to three hours. It is a time limit that the food vendors don’t like. They want it to be longer.

Lathrop should use extreme caution about extending their time. What they should do is replicate the strategy that Ripon and Manteca have adopted.

There are several reasons for this.

First, they are supposed to be mobile food vendors. Long periods of time do indeed establish return traffic which is what the vendors want. But if they go back to the same place, three or more hours at a stretch day after day they are about as close to being permanent as you can get without pouring concrete.

That creates impacts ranging from traffic and parking to safety. If they park on private property are they complying with the appropriate use for that land whether it is vacant or a parking lot? The city, after all, requires x-amount of parking spaces for a particular business zone and square footage. Adding a “mobile” dining spot to the mix probably isn’t figured into the equation since food service has a high parking ratio per seat. Of course, food vendors conveniently get around that by saying they don’t have seats. The real issue, though, is how customers get there. Most people drive in which case parking and traffic are issues.

Second, if helping people make a living is an important goal of the council then why not open the door for mobile trucks to sell other items that would compete with Target, SaveMart, and other Lathrop businesses besides restaurants?

So what if Lathrop loses sales tax to help pay for city services. After all, it is important that we help the little guys make a living.

This brings up the most important point: the term “little guys.” It may be mom and pops running food vending trucks today in Lathrop, but that may not be the case for long.

The hottest new trend for the real big boys - national fast food chains - is to deploy food trucks taking their menus to the streets via franchisees.

Jack on the Box has just rolled out a 34-foot long food truck to serve the chain’s burgers, tacos and fries in Southern California.

It is about 12 feet longer than your typical food vending truck. It is no slouch either. Not only does it have an on-board kitchen but they are equipped with digital menus and a 47-inch flat screen TV to entertain customers while they wait.

Why would Jack in the Box - or any other restaurant chain - want to invest millions into a brick and mortar operation when they can dispatch a mobile food vending truck and take it where the customers are for a fraction of the price?

The cost of land - that can run as high as $600,000 to $1 million for a prime fast food location based on real estate transaction in Manteca and Lathrop before the economic downturn - makes investing in brick-and-mortar risky. Then there is the issue of property taxes. Why pay property taxes to a city like Lathrop when it is cheaper to pay commercial truck fees to the state?

If Lathrop leaders don’t think Burger King could open in their city in a mobile truck one day, then they might want to ask their lawyer for a legal opinion. If you allow moms and pops to linger for the longer hours you’ve got to let the big guys do it too.

You can bet that if a big company tried to do that in Lathrop, it would become an issue of fairness for the city to level the playing field between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food vending trucks.

Of course at that point the folks taking the hit in the pocket book would be the City of Lathrop more so than the brick-and-mortar restaurants.