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The federal government’s effort to lure food trucks to feed hungry truck drivers at highway rest areas has been plagued by slow word-of-mouth and opposition from truck-stop operators who don’t want the entrepreneurs near their properties.
The Federal Highway Administration announced in early April that states could allow food trucks to park temporarily at federally funded interstate rest areas, where offerings are typically limited to vending machines, benches, and bathrooms. It was a response to truckers’ complaints that hot meals were scarce in parts of the U.S. because restaurants closed in response to the coronavirus, forcing many to spend valuable time searching for food.
“If you forget your lunch, you go hungry all day until you can eat something,” said Alex Nolasquez, a driver based in Houston. “You’re scared to go into a store. You don’t know what people have now.”
President Donald Trump praised the nation’s truck drivers and truck stops on the White House lawn on April 16. Still, the federal government can’t necessarily force states to open food trucks at rest areas. So far, at least 11 states have, though few food trucks have showed up.
Meanwhile, commercial truck stops, separate from rest areas, say food trucks placed near their stops will hurt sales at their restaurants and convenience stores nationally, which are still operating.
The industry has historically opposed adding businesses at rest areas, said Lisa Mullins, president and chief executive officer of NATSO, a group that represents truck stop operators and travel plazas. Now that states can temporarily allow food trucks there, her group sent a letter to the highway administration asking that food trucks serve only rest areas that aren’t close to their truck stops.
“Because if there’s a truck stop nearby that sells food, moving the food sales from a truck stop to a rest area could be enough to force that stop to close, and then where would the drivers fuel and shower?” Mullins said.
The National Council of State Agencies for the Blind is also pushing back against the proposal, saying that it will divert revenue from vending machines managed by blind entrepreneurs at the rest areas. The group wants food-truck operators to give some of their earnings to those vending machine managers.
A few states said they haven’t allowed food trucks because they don’t believe they’re needed. In Illinois, there aren’t long stretches of interstate without food options right now, said spokesperson Maria Castaneda. In Iowa, food trucks could back up traffic along the highway, said Andrea Henry, spokesperson for the state’s transportation department.
A few states are also running into the challenge of finding food truck operators interested in serving rest stops, and alerting truck drivers that hot meals are available there.
In New Mexico and Mississippi, two states that are allowing food trucks to park at rest stops, no one had applied to do it as of mid-April, the states said.
In Indiana, however, eight food trucks had set up shop at rest stops as of April 13. That includes Fort Wayne-based food truck Ziffles Zip N Go.
“It was kind of like a no-brainer for us,” to park here, said Autumn Law, the truck’s owner. “It’s not really about the business, or the money. It’s just about providing something that they’re not able to get at this moment in time.”
Matt Geller, president of the National Food Truck Association, said he’s trying to build a map of food trucks for truck drivers. He said food truck operators will want to know that when they go somewhere, truckers will know about it and come.
“You can’t just send a food truck to a location and hope that trucks know about it,” Geller said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Courtney Rozen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org