Why Hong Kong’s food truck scheme is failing to get into gear

Mike Rowse says inept planning and limited reach have hamstrung the pilot scheme from the outset and, with its founding fathers now bowing out, it may be left to civil servants to tackle any debacle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 11:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 6:24pm

It is said that success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. Who can be held responsible when the fathers of a scheme that starts to go sour leave office? I thought about this as news came through that a second food truck operator had dropped out without even getting on the road. Moreover, the minister responsible conceded that some of the locations selected by the government were less than ideal.

Hong Kong’s food truck scheme was launched by then financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in his 2015 budget speech; he had seen such arrangements working well in other countries. Tsang stepped down in November to run for chief executive. As the food truck idea had been presented as a tourism promotion item, the minister responsible for that sector, Gregory So Kam-leung, was put in charge of implementation. His term of office as commerce and economic development secretary expires at the end of this month, and he has indicated he will not stay on.

The scheme was pretty cack-handed from the outset. Where Bangkok and other Asian cities are famous for their street food scene, as Hong Kong used to be, the government here did its best to drive hawkers out of business on health and hygiene grounds. If they wished to survive they had to move into proper cooked food centres. This was based on the premise that health concerns should trump “atmosphere” in a crowded city like ours, which is a legitimate point.

Overall the [food truck] scheme comes across more as a bureaucratic exercise rather than an attempt to create a new culinary experience

In deciding to revive the concept, albeit in a limited way, the government made some rather fundamental decisions. First, it resolved that though the food is being sold from trucks with wheels, the vehicles are not free to move around. In other words, customers must come to where the food is. In which case one may well ask what is the difference between a food truck a la Hong Kong and a fixed restaurant or kiosk.

Secondly, the government chose the locations and allocated spaces. It selected eight spots adjacent to tourist hotspots and two spaces at each, for a total of 16 trucks. Next came the selection process. Applications were assessed according to food concept, menu, business and financial proposals, design of the vehicle, and so on. One has to ask what expertise civil servants have in some of these areas and how it compares to the experience of actual operators. Overall, the scheme comes across more as a bureaucratic exercise rather than an attempt to create a new culinary experience.

Inevitably, the pilot scheme has run into headwinds. Only one of the eight locations is apparently profitable – the one next to Disneyland, where of course it is cannibalising the profits of the theme park operator from his own catering outlets.

Changes on menu for Hong Kong food trucks feeling business bite

But if we look at the wider picture, these teething problems seem less significant. What is at issue is the whole point of the scheme at all. Why, if food trucks are a good idea, are we only targeting tourists? There may be a case on traffic congestion grounds for limiting the overall number, but why is the government selecting the locations?

Why, if food trucks are a good idea, are we only targeting tourists?

Above all, why can’t the trucks move to where the demand for their products is, which may be different at different times of day? So a truck could be serving breakfast to students and office workers in the morning at MTR entrances and transport interchanges, then providing noodles or lunch boxes close to schools and offices at midday, moving on to more exotic fare in the evenings close to entertainment centres including, naturally, tourist areas.

Why don’t we do what we know works best in Hong Kong and let the market – individual entrepreneurs – decide what to do rather than try to plan everything centrally?

It may be too early (and unfair) to declare the scheme a failure. After all, we are only at the pilot stage. Nor is this column intended as a criticism of the civil servants concerned, especially those in the Tourism Commission. They are loyal and hardworking and will no doubt do their best to fine-tune the arrangements to make the best of the direction set for them by their political masters. But if it turns out the scheme cannot be rescued because it was misconceived at the outset, then my fear is it will be the civil servants who end up taking responsibility. The old fathers have retired, and the new ones will say the baby is nothing to do with them. Orphanage, here we come.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. mike@rowse.com.hk