Food fight: Austin’s food trucks trail behind Houston’s

Brooke Sjoberg

Despite the fervor surrounding the food trucks and trailers lining city streets and filling lots, Austin’s food trucks rank behind Houston’s in terms of ease of operation, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

The year-long research project examined the financial implications of obtaining permits and licenses, complying with restrictions and operating a food truck in major cities around the country. Austin came in seventh place, directly behind Houston in terms of the ease of operating food trucks and trailers within the city. The top three cities in this survey for food truck operation are Portland, Denver and Orlando.

Although Austin has a strong foodie culture which keeps the food truck industry alive and well in the city, rising real estate costs have driven up the price of owning and operating these mobile kitchens legally.

Having been in the business with his trucks and trailers since 2010, Chi’lantro owner Jae Kim said he has observed the increase in cost of operation of small-scale restaurants over the last eight years, but does not find them to be prohibitively high. After his appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” Kim was able to open four brick and mortar locations for his business, while maintaining his trucks’ presence on the street.

“I used to pay $500 a month at a lot, but I know that, (beginning) two years ago, these private lots that are renting out food truck (and) food trailer spaces are going for $1,500 to $2,000 a month,” Kim said. “The cost of doing business is a lot higher than before. Comparing years ago to today, the challenge is (a more) competitive marketplace. Finding the lot, or finding places to vendor during lunch is a lot more challenging than before.”

Although the survey bases its comparison on the ease and cost of operation, it was unclear whether there was a difference in food quality between the trucks in Austin and Houston, which serve vastly different markets. Zeenat Talukder, a self-proclaimed Houston foodie who makes frequent trips to Austin food truck parks, said nothing compares to Austin flavor.

“Every time I go to Austin, that’s all we do,” Talukder said. “To be honest, I prefer Austin food trucks over (Houston’s). Even though Houston is very diverse in their food trucks, I just feel like Austin is where food trucks started in Texas, and they know how to do it better. It tastes better, and they have more options compared to Houston.”

While this may be the case in terms of the general variety of cuisines available in Austin, it may not be the same for those with special dietary restrictions. Electrical engineering freshman Zaid Basit, a Houston native, said he prefers the food trucks of his hometown because of variety in Halal options and lower prices.

“In Houston, I can kind of drive wherever I want and find something to eat,” Basit said. “The food in Houston is definitely cheaper. I think the part of Austin that we’re in is like a college town, and they know that students are going to eat there, regardless. So I think they hike up their prices a little bit because of that.”

The price of food from trucks in Austin is also significantly higher, which is the main reason environmental engineering freshman Imran Ahmed said he prefers those in Houston. He also said he misses his favorite truck in Houston, which serves tacos for a fraction of the price he said he pays for a similar item
in Austin.

“It’s cheap,” Ahmed said. “It’s so cheap, and they give you pretty good sized tacos. They’re less than a dollar each. I haven’t found any cheap taco trucks in Austin. Maybe I haven’t looked around a lot, but I feel like everybody goes to the same ones in Austin, while in Houston there’s more to go to.”