Food bikes: the low capital, low footprint alternative to food trucks by The Food Bikery
Food bikes are the low capital, low footprint alternative to food trucks, bringing positive economic and community development.
See our proposal video here on YouTube.
Food trucks are a very recent phenomenon, very few existing even five years ago. They are a large source of conspicuous consumption of fossil fuel that wasn't there before and doesn't need to be now.
The Food Bikery seeks to prove that food bikes are a safe, legal, low-capital, and low-footprint alternative to food trucks. In transitioning mobile food off of trucks and onto bicycles, the Food Bikery will stimulate economic opportunities for low-income citizens who would like to start mobile food businesses. We envision that the cost of a food bike can be $5,000 or lower, which is an order of magnitude less capital investment than an average food truck ($50,000) and two orders of magnitude less capital investment than an average restaurant ($500,000). Given that a person can potentially run a food bike business as a sole entrepreneur, we estimate the profit would be enough to make an hourly wage in the range of $20-30.
Mobile food is undoubtedly becoming an increasingly attractive economic opportunity. The National Restaurant Association estimated that food trucks generated $650 million in annual revenue in 2012, roughly 1 percent of U.S. restaurant sales. Intuit, a financial software company, expects revenue to reach $2.7 billion by 2015. Food trucks have offered a conduit to starting a business for many food entrepreneurs. For lower-income food entrepreneurs, however, the amount of capital for a food truck is far too high for them to raise themselves and difficult to raise via bank loans (due to lack of credit and other reasons).
Existing food bike entrepreneurs are not realizing their full potential either due to limits of existing food bike designs or market barriers in the code for mobile food facilities. Other food entrepreneurs are not pursuing mobile food because they do not have the capital required to invest in a food truck. These hurdles could be overcome with food bikes.
Category of the action
What actions do you propose?
We interviewed existing food bike entrepreneurs and health and safety inspectors to understand the barriers for food bikes to do on-site cooking. By and large, food bike entrepreneurs have difficulty meeting the refrigeration and water/sink requirements outlined in the California health and safety code while maintaining a food bike design and weight that allows for ease of travel. (These requirements come at a cost of carrying a large refrigerator, 125 pounds of water, and three extra sinks.) Meanwhile, health and safety inspectors are not inclined to permit any mobile food facility that does not strictly follow code. However, in our interviews, it became clear that there are opportunities for local changes to the code as well as nuanced interpretations of the code. In the end, you must work with each county or city’s associated inspector on a one-on-one basis to permit your mobile food facility. In this section we will outline a strategy for proactively working with Oakland city government and health & safety authorities to promote the successful adoption of food bikes.
In order to maximize the transformative impact that food bikes can have, they must have the following design characteristics:
- Code compliant: compliant with local health and safety codes regarding public health controls (largely refrigeration and water requirements) and fire safety
- Capital-efficient: delivered to customer at a price at least an order of magnitude lower cost than a food truck (<$5,000 vs. $50,000 for a food truck)
- Self-sufficient: designed such that one person can operate the food bike themselves without assistance from others, in order to promote autonomy and minimize operating costs for food entrepreneurs
- Safe: when biking on streets, the food bike and trailer are not wider than the width of a bike lane and has proper braking and lighting to ensure safe travel between the associated commissary/kitchen and public cooking locations
- Ergonomic: weight and height of the food bike and trailer should enable user to travel and cook without undue stress on his or her body
- Educational: design of the food bike and trailer encourages interaction between chef and customer and between customers, while signage used on trailer offers information on foods being cooked
Code compliance requires working with outside regulators, while the other design characteristics are primarily technical issues that can be solved with good design and optimized with stakeholder collaboration.
Refrigeration is required for mobile food facilities carrying “potentially hazardous foods”, which is essentially any food that is not pre-packaged. However, potentially hazardous foods are allowed to be taken out of the refrigeration as long as they are used or discarded within four hours. This process is known as “time as a public health control”, and it is commonly used in all restaurant kitchens. Labeling is used to keep track of when potentially hazardous foods have left refrigeration. Most mobile food facilities operate for more than four hours at a time and thus always have refrigeration on board (powered by a generator), and thus they have never considered using time as a public health control to avoid the refrigeration requirements.
The Food Bikery plans to use time as a public health control to achieve compliance. Namely, the food bike will have an automated GPS tracking system to publicly tweet the location of the food bike at any given time. The Food Bikery will be partnering with a local Oakland-based commissary for storing the food bike overnight and for doing food prep. Prepared ingredients (eggs, sliced up vegetables and fruit, grains) will be removed from refrigeration and storage at the commissary and loaded onto the food bike immediately prior to departure. The food bike will travel to its pre-determined destination to set up and begin cooking and serving customers. At roughly 3.5 hours, the food bike will travel back to the commissary and dispose of any leftover ingredients before the 4-hour time window is up. The process can be guaranteed with time and location-based tweets that are public for health and safety authorities (as well as the public) to see. Small battery-operated GPS tracking systems are not expensive and will be relatively simple to implement. With 1 hour allotted to travel and 3 hours allotted to cooking, this should be plenty of time for a food biker to sell dozens of hot meals at a lunch or dinner time period. Additionally, the amount of food ingredients prepared can be planned such that there is rarely any waste. Ideally, everything will be cooked and sold. If there is a small amount of food left over, the commissary facility has composting resources available.
To review water and sink requirements, a hand-washing sink (and 5-gallon water tank) are needed if any potentially hazardous food is handled. There is no way to get around this requirement, and we believe it is reasonable and achievable. First, El Taco Bike actually has a hand-washing sink and water tank on his food bike, serving as an example for our project. Secondly, if any food is handled with utensils, then the mobile food facility needs to have a 3-basin ware-washing sink and a 15-gallon water tank for cleaning utensils. This requirement will be difficult, if not impossible, for a food bike to meet while still maintaining an ergonomic and bike-able design. Potentially, a second bike could be used just to carry all of this water and sinks. This violates our principle of self-sufficiency. We are seeking a solution to avoid the ware-washing sink requirement. Legally speaking, there does not seem to be a reason why a food bike could not simply bring several (or a dozen) sets of clean cooking utensils from its affiliated commissary or kitchen. The food bike could have separate compartments for clean and dirty utensils and ensure that they are never co-mingled. Some health inspectors may approve this method, though likely a code change or exception will be needed. We are looking into working with local councilmembers in Oakland and Berkeley to lobby for these changes.
If you would like to find a few examples of existing food bikes, you need not look further than Portland and Oakland, two bike-friendly cities with burgeoning mobile food and urban food movements. The Food Bikery has interviewed and interacted with the food bikes of Oakland, namely El Taco Bike, Curbside Creamery, Hot Bike, and Bicycle Coffee Co. Despite their successes, there remains a gap in the food bike community: no existing food bike can cook food in public spaces and at public events due to the requirements for refrigeration and washing.
Hot Bike (run by Rose Johnson) is a food bike that caters private parties. Food is prepared in a commercial kitchen, and all supplies arrive to those parties by bike. Hot Bike has not pursued sales at public events because the design of her food bike would not meet the requirements for a mobile food facility. Curbside Creamery (run by Tori Wentworth) has a storefront and kitchen where ice cream sandwiches are prepared. She often sells these at farmers’ markets. Since she serves pre-packaged food, she does not need any sinks, but keeps her sandwiches in a well-insulated freezer on wheels. El Taco Bike (run by Alfonso Dominguez) followed the basic requirements set forth for “push carts”, selling pre-packaged tamales and burritos to avoid refrigeration and utensil sink requirements. Instead of pushing his cart by hand, he pulls it with his bicycle to different public events. He also caters private events occasionally. Finally, Bicycle Coffee Co. is a successful business which delivers roasted coffee beans by bicycle to many cafés around Oakland. It is also the main coffee business at the popular Grand Lake Farmers Market. They operate as a temporary food facility, which is the type of permitting most commonly used for food stalls at farmers markets, concerts, and other similar events. They bring all of the supplies they need for a day’s work using about six bicycles. This includes buckets and water for washing hands and utensils, and coolers for milk products.
Hot Bike and El Taco Bike are limited in their scope of business. Hot Bike is looking for a design that can comply with the mobile food facility code and allow her to operate at public events. El Taco Bike is also not satisfied with simply selling pre-packaged foods. The customer is not as satisfied with pre-packaged foods as when the food is cooked on-site and served hot and fresh. Both food bikes are committed to having bicycles as their main form of transportation, and they do not have the capital to support a food truck operation.
We also spoke with the Kitchener, which is a commissary located in the Uptown neighborhood of Oakland. Self-described as “Oakland's commercial kitchen with a community conscience”, the Kitchener is an affordable co-working kitchen where food entrepreneurs launching catering, baking, or pop-up food businesses can prepare their food. Many of the food entrepreneurs would like to get into mobile food as well, but do not have the capital to support a food truck operation. There is interest among some of the Kitchener’s food entrepreneurs to pilot food bikes with cooking capabilities.
Additions to the proposal:
The feasibility of food bikes in terrain that is not flat: This is a great question, and one that I believe we will be able to address with some electric assist. Many bikes are being designed in this way nowadays. Just the other day, I saw my friend taking his two kids uphill on his Extracycle cargo bike which had an electric assist, and allowed him to accelerate up a hill with about 300 lbs of weight. Since our target trailer design weight is about 150 lbs, I believe an electric assist could assist food bikes in operating in areas with hilly terrain (such as San Francisco). It would add costs and maintenance issues to the design, however. There are resources (companies like Xtracycle, and inventors like Saul Griffith) working on electric assist designs so we can consult with them.
Address regulatory issues in more depth: When new products are introduced into a market, they often face regulatory hurdles. They may break or bend the existing rules. The key for The Food Bikery is to show that we are creating additional value for the economy and the community without impacting public health and safety. When the California Homemade Food Act (aka Cottage Food Law) was first envisioned, it came into conflict with the existing retail food code. Once it was shown that there would be new economic opportunities for food entrepreneurs without harming public safety, it was a no-brainer for politicians to pass the new regulations. In order to mimic the success of that law, we need two components: 1) successful pilots in Berkeley and Oakland, 2) market research that shows that there are many food entrepreneurs who would use food bikes if they were legal, safe, and low-cost. Our approach is to focus on the pilots first to ensure that we can operate food bikes safely and successfully. Once we start achieving some milestones in the pilots, we can formally gather market research on the need for this innovation (we already have informally gathered some) and rally community groups around our cause, which may lead to a more formal lobbying effort similar to the Cottage Food Law.
Will it remain a “boutique” kind of activity among the educated young people in big cities? Or can it possibly appeal to the Main Street America? Farmers markets are no longer a "boutique" activity. The amount of farmers markets in both liberal and conservative communities across the US has been steadily rising, due to rising awareness on health, climate change, and food as well as an eagerness to support local economies. Food bikes support increased food awareness and strong local economies as well, so there is reason to believe that they could have broad appeal.
Who will take these actions?
Local city councilmembers around California will help us lobby for appropriate changes to the food code to accomodate food bikes that are healthy, safe, and low footprint.
Non profit legal aid foundations will help us with writing the associated legislation and permitting requirement changes.
Local mechanics and metalworkers will help us in assembling the first food bike prototypes.
Local commissaries and kitchens will cooperate in our first pilots.
Local farms will contribute produce and ideas for food bikes.
Where will these actions be taken?
Our pilot will take place in the East Bay in northern California, including cities such as Oakland and Berkeley. If successful, we will expand to other major north American cities.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
While electric vehicles and biofuels receive most of the attention in low-carbon transportation alternatives, bicycles are often left out of the discussion. This sort of human energy is clean and efficient. Cars and trucks require hundreds of horsepower and use enormous amounts of energy (much of which is wasted). Bicycles require just one human and waste less energy per unit mass moved. Additionally, 40% of all transportation trips in the U.S. are two miles or less (League of American Bicyclists, 2008). Bicycling is the most efficient means of transport for these short trips. Many of the trips that food trucks make are also of a short length, and there is no reason why these trips could not be made by bicycle instead. Food bikes will use less energy than food trucks, reducing both carbon dioxide and particulate pollution. Bottom line: Food trucks use on average 2000 gallons of gasoline per year. Food bikes would eliminate the need for this gasoline. Both would use propane for cooking.
What are other key benefits?
Food bikes can offer these benefits to local communities:
- Decrease fossil fuel consumption and climate change emissions
- Improve use of community space
- Increase physical well-being and health and foster awareness about the power of bicycles
- Increase awareness about where food comes from and how it is prepared
Food bikes promote interaction between chef and eater. The experience will be more similar to a “street food” experience, where the cooking is done on the street level as opposed to hidden inside a vehicle. People are generally very curious to watch this process and learn from it. To the extent possible, food bikes could be incorporate food from local and urban farms, while helping to advertise those products with signage on the side of food bicycle.
The Food Bikery will harness the positive aspects that food trucks foster (economic opportunity and community space), while minimizing harmful environmental impacts, increasing knowledge about food, and demonstrating the utility of bicycles.
What are the proposal’s costs?
The proposal for our first official food bike protoype will cost around $2500. We have budgeted $2000 in permitting (first time and annual) fees for the cities of Berkeley and Oakland where we are piloting. We have budgeted an additional $3000 in human labor costs for mechanics, metalworkers, and legal assistance. Our total budget is $7500.
Progress thus far
In the month of February we conducted 10 interviews with various people from the food and bicycle community. We used the findings of our interviews to help us flesh out a more complete proposal. In March 2014, we conducted interviews and meetings with permitting authorities for City of Berkeley and Alameda County, as well as councilmembers of Berkeley and Oakland. In April 2014, we produced a video on how The Food Bikery plans to grow the food bike community to become a sustainable part of the food landscape.
Short term (1 year)
We will begin legal discussions with Sustainable Economies Law Center on avenues to successful permitting. We will finish our design for the food bike and bring it to local blacksmiths to get a competitive quote for supplies, metalworking, and plumbing. We will bring our proposal to Bohemian Blacksmith and Kicktrailer, businesses that are both located in Oakland and have experience in building trailers and custom bikes for local bike-related businesses. Construction on the prototype will begin once we have raised the money. Once we finish construction, we will assist our first food bike client(s) in the permitting processes with City of Berkeley and/or Alameda County. Then, we will begin user testing with our food bike client in private party settings and – pending permitting – in public market settings (using Kitchener commissary for associated food preparation). We will evaluate operational metrics for food bikes versus food trucks.
Medium term (2-3 years)
Pending successful permitting and user testing, we will begin researching different business models (for-profit, cooperative, partnerships with commissaries, etc.) for scaling up The Food Bikery, so we can continue to serve food entrepreneurs and grow the food bike community.
Long term (5 years and beyond)
We will expand to other cities around North America, pioneering a model of food bikes to replace food trucks as the low capital, low footprint alternative for mobile food.
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League of American Bicyclists. (2008). Climate Change and Bicycling: How bicycling advocates can help craft comprehensive climate action plans. Washington, DC: Advocacy Advance.
Manasse, E. (2013). Broadway Valdez District Specific Plan - Public Review Draft. Oakland: City of Oakland.
Weber, C. M. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the U.S. Environmental Science Technology.