Hong Kong’s food trucks scheme leaves operators with a bad taste in the mouth
A pilot scheme for food trucks in Hong Kong is drawing criticism for its impractical and restrictive rules on what equipment and space the trucks must have, and its conflict with environmental policy
Siky Wan Siu-kei was thrilled when he heard about the government proposal last year to introduce food trucks in Hong Kong.
Wan was already running a van rental service, and chefs and food suppliers regularly tapped his fleet of 13 vehicles when providing on-site catering at private parties, expos and fairs. Acting quickly, he transformed one of his minivans into a food truck equipped with solar-powered stoves. The entire retrofitting cost about HK$200,000.
But Wan’s ambitions ran aground as soon as he tried to join the Tourism Commission’s food truck pilot scheme announced in December. That’s when he learned that his van didn’t meet government specifications.
Watch: Hong Kong man operates food truck to realise his restaurant dream
“At present, there is no legislation in Hong Kong governing the operation of food trucks. So the government uses existing criteria [for a food factory licence] which is for indoor spaces,” Wan says.
“The [Food Business] Regulation states that the food preparation space must be at least six square metres. That’s why the ice-cream trucks you see around Hong Kong are so big. But small food trucks are everywhere in the West. Our food truck scheme is a new thing. So why isn’t there new legislation?”
Despite widespread enthusiasm about the potential of such trucks to liven up Hong Kong’s food scene, the pilot scheme is drawing a slew of criticisms, not least for being impractical, at odds with environmental policy, and for setting unreasonable restrictions.
The two-year trial will involve 16 trucks operating at eight locations, including Golden Bauhinia Square and Hong Kong Disneyland. Applicants for the scheme must first submit written business proposals and take part in a cooking competition before the selection is made. Successful applicants will have about 10 per cent of their earnings deducted to cover parking, electricity and management fees at the sites.
Hence Wan’s complaint: “There will be on-site electricity supply. Why do you need a diesel power generator in the truck?”
The government also requires each food truck to be fitted with a diesel generator, a water tank with a capacity of at least 120 litres and a container to hold at least 180 litres of waste water – regardless of the type of food served.
A fully equipped food truck imported from Japan would only cost HK$240,000 including tax, but Wan reckons he would have to invest in a lorry costing at least HK$700,000 to fulfil such requirements.
Regulators have set conditions that simply stifle business and creativity, says Simon Chung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Food Truck Association (HKFTA) and a chef specialising in Italian cuisine.
The scheme also does not allow menus to be changed. [Operators] have to sell the same thing every day.
Watch: Five rules for Hong Kong's food trucks
Cities from San Francisco to London support hundreds of trucks that move from location to location.
In Hong Kong, “only two trucks are allowed at each location at the same time. But there has to be a cluster of trucks selling different types of food to create an atmosphere for people to want to gather and buy food,” Chung says. “The scheme also does not allow menus to be changed. [Operators] have to sell the same thing every day, and they can only rotate to another location once every four months. But if the food is not popular at a site, they will be stuck there for that time.”
The requirement for business plans to run a food truck has stumped many would-be applicants.
“Chefs are good at cooking, not writing a two-year proposal. They end up paying tens of thousands of dollars to consultants to write the plans for them,” Chung says. “The cooking competition should be held before submission of proposals. Otherwise, a number of good cooks will be screened out just because their proposals are not good enough.
“Many applicants, especially young people, are forced to collaborate with big catering groups to apply for the food truck scheme.”
What’s more, applicants are required to submit scale models of their truck’s interior set-up, along with estimates of the amount of electricity consumed by the equipment fitted inside.
Wan says quite a few young applicants withdrew after learning about the conditions, although the scheme is also intended to help young people start businesses.
The HKFTA operates a fleet of 15 vehicles, which are rented out for on-site catering events, and helps hirers secure a temporary food factory licence.
Besides facilitating purchases of customised food trucks from the US, the HKFTA also helps with applications to join the pilot scheme. And half of its 24 members have submitted applications to sell casual bites ranging from Korean-style tacos to roast goose.
Former sommelier Gordon Lam Sui-wa is among the applicants. Backed by a catering group, Lam imported a HK$800,000 food truck from Denmark, which has since seen service across the city, from Lan Kwai Fong to AsiaWorld-Expo.
A couple of weeks ago, Lam served sausages and dessert to enthusiastic students at a Tseung Kwan O school as part of a promotion by the HKFTA.
“I wanted to open a restaurant but rent is too expensive,” Lam says, which led him to think of operating a food truck as a first step toward realising his restaurant dreams.
At the Tseung Kwan O school, Lam’s food truck was hooked up to solar-powered batteries instead of the diesel generator specified for the trial scheme.
Chung says the government’s requirement for a diesel generator contradicts its green policies.
“Diesel power generators will produce carbon exhaust fumes. There are so many local groups clamouring for green policies and Hong Kong also has a ban on idling vehicles with running engines. With the diesel generators in the 16 [trial] trucks running the whole day, will green groups stage protests at the sites?”
Community groups have been staging protests even before the pilot scheme is rolled out.
Designers and hawkers groups collaborated to stage grassroots versions of a food truck show in Sheung Shui earlier this month and another in Causeway Bay in January to press for the government to implement a more diversified policy and enable more ordinary people to enter the street food business.
In Causeway Bay, 10 locally designed vehicles, some costing less than HK$2,000, parked at the pedestrian area near Sogo department store, where organisers handed out snacks such as egg waffles, dumplings and Chinese pudding to the crowd. Many passers-by uploaded photos with hashtags in support of the cause.
“The purpose of the show is to [demonstrate] that the entry threshold for the scheme is too high,” says Niles Mak Siu-chun, a designer who created one of the vehicles.
Construction costs for the hawker trolleys on display, including recycled bicycles and small vans, ranged from HK$1,500 to HK$100,000 – far less than the estimated HK$700,000 start-up cost to operate a food truck under the government pilot scheme.
“The government food truck scheme is aimed at tourists, not locals,” Mak says.
“With well thought-out design, cheaper and smaller food trucks can also be artistic and hygienic. The government keeps cracking down on hawkers. We hope that we can get back our street food snacks sold by ordinary people.”
A spokesman for the Tourism Commission, which runs the scheme, says the cost of the food truck is just an estimate.
The HK$500,000-600,000 price tag that some have projected is based on the assumption that “the food truck is a brand new light goods vehicle with fully equipped food preparation compartment, sewage and waste treatment”, he says.
“The actual investment in a food truck depends on the vehicle and equipment selected by the operator, which will be different for every case.”
Critics have attacked the scheme as setting entry barriers so high that only major restaurant or catering companies would qualify.
However, the spokesman insists: “There is no entry threshold for the pilot scheme.
“In fact, we welcome all eligible persons and companies to participate in the scheme and attach importance to the creativity and quality of the food being sold instead of the capital or business size of applicants.”
Operators in need of funds could even apply for loans of up to US$300,000 under the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation’s microfinance scheme, he adds.
With the deadline for the pilot food trucks approaching at the end of May, the spokesman declined to reveal the number of applications submitted.
Stressing the pilot scheme is a “stand-in arrangement”, he says, adding that the Tourism Commission will review its effectiveness in several ways.
“We will keep in view the implementation of the pilot scheme and maintain close contact with the venue management authorities and food truck operators. Our review will also cover the need for dedicated legislation for food truck operations in Hong Kong in the long run.”
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