There’s no question that Austin’s food truck scene has grown over the past five years. Travis County had fewer than 700 mobile food vending permits in December 2006. Today, the official count is above 1,300.
But a closer look at county data obtained by KUT News through an Open Records Request shows the number of mobile food vending permits has remained relatively stagnant since mid-2009. While that number doesn’t tell the whole story, it may raise questions over whether the city’s food truck market is approaching saturation.
The county changed how it counts mobile food permits in September 2010 to include delinquent permits. Those are permits that have expired in the last six months. It makes comparing 2006 to 2011 difficult.
But an examination of permits before the change shows the number barely budged, from 1,086 in June 2009 to 1,088 in September 2010. You can see that in this chart.
From October 2010 to May 2011, the number of permits (now including delinquents) fluctuated from 1,273 to 1,394.
But those numbers also don’t tell the whole story of Austin’s food truck market.
“That’s why we call it an indicator,” said Sue Simons, the supervisor of the city’s mobile food vending program. “You can clearly tell if you’re out on the streets in Austin that there are more mobiles now than there was two years ago.”
Simons says mobile food vending permits aren’t only issued to gourmet food trucks associated with the mobile dining trend. They are also required by mobile ice cream vendors, both those in push carts and in trucks. People selling ready-to-eat food at farmers markets need a mobile food permit. Some food kiosks in malls are considered mobile vendors. And stands that operate at festivals need to have a permit.
“There’s such a diversity in the mobile vendors,” Simons said.
There’s also a lot of turnover within the market. New food trucks are popping up, and others are going out of business.
“You kind of have to do loose math with it to figure out what you are trying to count,” Austin Food Trailer Alliance founder Tony Yamanaka said. “Maybe you have 600? Maybe. And they are clustered together. When one closes down, you are probably going to see that trailer again with a new wrap on it, new menu, new chef.”
“What’s going to put a cap on it is real estate that works, because if you don’t have a good location, you’re pretty much doomed from the start,” he said.
Here's a chart showing the number of mobile food vending permits in Travis County from December 2006 through May 2011. You can see a clear bump in October 2010, when Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services began including delinquent permits in its count.