The explanation (so I've been told) is that locals proudly protect this environment by visiting their favorite restaurants regularly and by trying and carefully evaluating new ones with semi-professional discernment. Those who earn the support of the locals can thrive and quickly become the topic of hundreds of conversations. A New Orleanian will talk about their dinner while eating their lunch. They will also be quick to list their favorite restaurants categorized by cuisine, neighborhood, price, and service. It turns out that you're not from New Orleans until butter and wine (and maybe a little lard) course through your veins.
Perhaps because I've been immersed in this powerful food culture, which remains as strong as ever after Katrina, I've become fascinated with the latest drama to become the talk of the town: the food truck situation. As Micheline Maynard (@mickimaynard) explains in her article for The Atlantic (http://www.theatlanticcities.com/arts-and-lifestyle/2012/06/why-its-so-hard-be-food-truck-new-orleans/2250/), "...At a time when mobile kitchens are flourishing in so many parts of the country, prospective New Orleans food truck owners face a variety of restrictions that keep them from fanning out across the Crescent City." Basically, the City of New Orleans categorizes food trucks as mobile vendors, setting a limit on how many (about 100), where (not in the neighborhoods with any foot traffic) and how (they can't stay in one place for over 30 minutes) food trucks operate. the majority of the licenses available are taken over by non-truck vendors such as souvenir hawkers.
This situation is, of course, not unique to New Orleans. Powerful restaurant lobbies have been fighting the potential competition from food truck tooth and nail. Chicago, L.A. and New York have all created regulations that impede food trucks from competing directly with their non-mobile counterparts. Some cities, however, have favored the little guy and worked to remove obstacles for mobile kitchens. As reason.tv shows (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrMJs_DVajc&feature=player_embedded#!) food trucks remain a popular and increasingly available options for consumers in Washington D.C.
Of course, starting a food truck is not easy, even if regulations are on your side. $15,000 to $100,000 in average startup costs and the ever-present issue of finding legal parking (particularly in large cities where operating a food truck because of sufficient food traffic) might also stand in the way of even the most dedicated mobile kitchen operator (I prefer the name food trucker or perhaps food truckie?). See http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/innovation/article/so-you-want-to-start-a-food-truck-erin-zimmer for a more detailed guide.
Back in New Orleans, coalitions of citizens and food truckers have begun to fight city hall and seek out their piece of the foodie pie. The New Orleans Food Truck Coalition and their hungry friends have begun a hearty social media campaign (http://nolafoodtrucks.com/news/) and held several events to promote their cause.
My two cents. While I'm still learning about the ins and outs of food trucking in New Orleans, I've heard a couple of things that have stuck with me:
- Established New Orleans restaurants need not fear the food truck. Restaurants can start their own food trucks and leverage their catering experience and hard-earned skills to push out the novices. It is, in fact, an opportunity for restaurants to experiment with new locations without spending the capital (human or financial) that it takes to start a new restaurant. Moreover, opening a satellite food truck or a re-branded food truck can help some restaurants that are having trouble reaching out to a younger clientele to reach out to new demographics.
- The experience offered by the food truck is much different from the experience of a sit down restaurant. It is unlikely that, once the novelty wears off, a couple on a date or a family will opt for a food truck over a sit down dining experience. The restaurants that might be competing directly with food trucks are those that have crappy ambiance and don't focus on service. I might be worried, for instance, if I was a fast food joint that makes money by selling convenience - there is nothing more convenient than a truck outside your office.
- (added 8/8/2012) Governments too readily protect businesses they see as the "lifeblood" of a city or country. When the car industry was protected from foreign competition during the rise of the Japanese automakers, it took several years for them to recover. If New Orleans wants to maintain its advantage as an exciting food destination it should be encouraging innovation. This situation strikes as very similar to the law in several U.S. states that prevents the sale of a car on the Internet directly from a manufacturer without the participation of an dealer.