Ask Pablo: Are Food Trucks Greener Than Restaurants?

Two women ordering from a food truck that says burritos.

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Dear Pablo: The latest craze seems to be food trucks and I want to know, which is greener: food trucks or restaurants?
Food trucks have become the latest foodie fad, with mobile gourmet canteens flooding the domain of roach coaches all across the US. Aside from just being part of the general trend in increasing nutritional awareness among consumers of food truck meals, food trucks are now also providing a restaurant alternative to hipsters and yuppies. With this demographic's keen interest in the declining state of our environment, it is only natural to wonder which has a lower impact on the environment: a food truck or a restaurant. Of course, there are many components, so let's take a look at a few.

Food Truck vs Restaurant: Location, Location, Location

People lined up outside of a food truck in an urban setting.

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While restaurants rely on brick and mortar locations, food trucks have a much smaller footprint and can go to where their customers are. Since food trucks serve customers on sidewalks, there is little infrastructure (aside from perhaps a small commercial kitchen for preparing food) that needs to be maintained.

A restaurant, on the other hand, has a kitchen, dining area, and bathrooms that need to be illuminated, heated or air conditioned, and cleaned regularly. The restaurant always occupies its physical location, even during non-business hours, while the food truck occupies a curb-side spot during meal times and returns to a parking lot for the rest of the day. There is no disputing that the physical footprint of the food truck is smaller.

Edge: Food Trucks

Food Truck vs Restaurant: Energy Use

A black woman stirring pot on a stove in a food truck.

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Along with a restaurant's physical location comes the need for electricity and natural gas to maintain comfortable temperatures, and provide light for dining customers. Cooking is typically done with natural gas and griddles are often kept hot all day long. According to the 2018 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), most restaurants are between 1,000 and 5,000 square feet and use 38.4 kWh of electricty per square foot per year (that's 77,000 kWh per year for a 2,000 ft2 restaurant), and 141.2 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot per year (that's about 2824 therms per year for a 2,000 ft2 restaurant).

Food trucks also require a heat source for cooking, typically propane. From comments on a food truck forum I ascertained that a food truck would use about 900 gallons of propane per year. Food trucks have the additional fuel requirements for driving around. This fuel is either gasoline or diesel but some food trucks use vegetable oil or biodiesel. I would estimate the annual fuel use at around 1,200 gallons. This fuel is sometimes also consumed by an onboard generator for electricity needs. While generators are typically more polluting than grid-supplied electricity, food trucks have less electricity demand since they have no dining area or bathrooms, and rely a lot more on natural light.

Edge: Food Trucks

Food Truck vs Restaurant: Vehicle Miles

A man with tattoos puts toppings on dishes in food truck.

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It is obvious that a restaurant itself doesn't consume any vehicle fuels but a food truck certainly does. However, a short trip by a food truck to an office park, construction site, or neighborhood park can offset a number of small trips by customers that would have otherwise driven to a restaurant. Of course some restaurants cater or provide delivery service, but this is essentially the same as the customer driving to the restaurant.

New smartphone apps like Food Truck Fiesta and Eat St. have foodies travelling to meet their favorite vendor (but we hope that most of them do it on foot or by bike).

Edge: Food Trucks

Food Truck vs Restaurant: Waste

Compostable dishes with salad on a stainless steel counter.

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Eco-groovy food trucks use corn-based plastic, bagasse, or recycled paper take-out containers for serving their goods but this still creates waste. Sit-down restaurants have the edge here because they use reusable plates, cups, and utensils that are washed on-site, but take-out and fast-food restaurants rely heavily on take-out containers as well. Those single-use containers are often made from plastic and Styrofoam.

Some food trucks are serious about composting but the customers and the food trucks don't always stick around long enough for the compostable containers and food scraps to be collected for composting. Restaurants, on the other hand, are able to collect almost all of their food scraps for composting (where available) or sending it to be used as feed at a farm. The National Restaurant Association estimates that 20 percent of all food prepared commercially in
the United States goes to waste.

Edge: It's a Draw

And The Winner Is...

A group of people eating outside of a food truck.

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Putting numbers to this answer would vary widely, depending on the restaurants and food trucks in question, but the qualitative analysis above clearly favors the food truck.

It is certainly true that some restaurants will be more sustainable than some food trucks so it is up to you, the consumer, to evaluate your personal options. Be sure to ask questions of your restaurants and food trucks because this will demonstrate to them that their customers are interested in their environmental impact, perhaps persuading them to do more for the environment to retain your business and to attract other hip customers like you.

Another consideration is around community. Restaurants can serve as an anchor for a neighborhood, a meeting place or hub of social activity. Food trucks, on the other hand, are transient and lack a true sense of place. Sure, you might run into a friend or meet somebody new at the food truck but tomorrow that food truck might be someplace completely different, making it an unreliable meeting point.

While the new, gourmet food trucks move around, they are more likely to take their community with them. At least in San Francisco, food trucks have quite a following and use social media to bring people to their current location. Food truck roundups also bring a lot of foodies together, where networking and a whole lot of fun can occur. As food trucks grow in popularity, the community follows.

Of course, there is probably no more sustainable lunch than leftovers of a dinner that you made yourself and lovingly stored in a reusable container. For extra (organic, flour-less) brownie points, buy your organic ingredients at your local farmers' market.