In Alberta’s capital, a familiar food feud

Wheels vs. bricks-and-mortar restaurant? Double cheer for competition.
San Francisco

I’m happy to report, if anyone’s interested, that Edmonton’s downtown food truck scene is getting better fast, and is probably already about eighty times better than Toronto’s. I’m unhappy to report that this is having the usual results: a bricks-and-mortar restaurant has whined to the city about the business that a good food truck is taking away. From the Journal:

The Drift Food Truck, owned by Nevin and Kara Fenske and famed for gourmet sandwiches and fresh-cut fries, was asked to relocate a few weeks ago by the city’s sustainable development department after a complaint from Grandma Lee’s Bakery Cafe, located inside an office tower at the corner of 100th Avenue and 108th Street, where Drift regularly sets up shop.

Jim Timmons, president of Grandma Lee’s, said it’s unfair that the truck can “cherry-pick the business” and operate in a prime neighbourhood without having to pay the same taxes. “I pay substantial taxes for premium real estate every day of the year,” Timmons said. “If the food truck wants to pay the same rates for taxes and for rent that I pay for premium location I don’t mind the competition.”

Mr. Timmons believes, apparently, that his rent and taxes pay not only for a patch of land, but also for some kind of invisible force shield that can be used to repel mobile businesses from making licensed use of adjacent property. It was Timmons’ choice, presumably, to put his business inside a downtown building that’s not on handy-dandy wheels. (If I know anything about history, the wheel was used to transport ready-to-eat meals a week after it was invented, and some grouchy mesolithic innkeeper was bitching to the high priests about the competition within another week.)

In exactly the same regard, a restaurateur might find himself getting out-competed after making a large investment in, say, a brick pizza oven. What would your reaction be if you heard him griping that “Nearby restaurants shouldn’t be allowed to serve customers unless they pay just as much for materials and fuel as I did?” Timmons’ complaint is about cosmic fairness, not public policy. That he tacitly acknowledges that he has no other way to regain lost customers is, pardon the pun, just the icing on the cake. You don’t mind the competition as long as you get to decide how much your competitors spend on overhead, baker man? A more accurate way to put that would be “I do mind competition.”

Timmons’ lobbying, as Journal readers were quick to point out in the comment section, is questionable even on its own terms. The Drift truck puts together sandwich fixings and cuts potatoes in its own prep kitchen, for which it pays rent and taxes and all the other costs that an integrated restaurant must meet. (Those readers also seem to feel that Grandma Lee’s is kind of a zombie brand that’s having circles driven around it quality-wise by the truck. I report, you decide!) The truck, in other words, is a delivery device.

And, again, it’s pretty easy to see the foolishness of one establishment complaining about how another delivers its product. Should the restaurants close to my home complain that vendors can potentially bring tastier food to my door from miles away, 365 days a year? Damn you, internal combustion engine!

But forget all that. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Timmons’ argument is right: the objectionable food truck really is somehow engaged in illicit regulatory arbitrage, the whole situation is truly unfair to a decent, taxpaying business owner, and Drift is doing something that an omniscient ethical magistrate would consider utterly damnable. The big question is: why would a customer care? From the standpoint of a downtown eater’s interests, maximum choice is good, and may the best sandwich win. Timmons has completely failed to consider the issue from the standpoint of his potential clientele: they are not even on his mind. He is solely concerned about the harm competition might do to him if he doesn’t get to dictate the terms.

Given some time, he could probably have come up with at least a crummy argument for why driving food trucks out of Edmonton’s downtown is a good thing for the people who live and work there. (They’re deathwagons! They enliven the sidewalks so much that people will eventually abandon all thought of indoor life and colonize the streets, with no thought of winter’s approach!) He didn’t even try. That’s amazing, isn’t it? This kind of “easier-for-me” thinking would shock me if I encountered it in a teenage barista; to find it in the president of a company makes me worry that something has gone badly awry with business education hereabouts.

(P.S.: who’s surprised that a “sustainable development” agency is involved in this naked rent-seeking? Anybody? Bueller?)