Which of the two are more environmentally friendly, or is there simply no definitive answer? Right now, there are many individuals that may quickly assume that food trucks are the worse of the two evils, given the national focus on how environmentally sustainable practices tie to modes of transportation.

However, sustainability is something that comes into play whenever a light is turned on, plastic is thrown into the garbage, dishes are washed, etc. Environmentally friendly (or harmful) practices do not start and stop with the key in the ignition, but they instead take place during and after all operating hours of a business – in a food trailer or in a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Let’s look at the factors that come into play during these businesses’ operations.

The location. As you know, catering trucks are mobile. They move from place to place, and thus leave a smaller footprint on where they’ve been. There’s little infrastructure, aside from the commercial kitchen, that needs to be maintained. And then there are restaurants. Restaurants have multiple large areas that must be illuminated, temperature-regulated and cleaned regularly. These physical entities exist all the time, not just during operating hours.

Energy Use. As mentioned above, a traditional restaurant’s physical location creates the need for electricity and natural gas to maintain comfortable temperatures, and to provide light for dining customers. In the kitchens, cooking is generally done with natural gas, and griddles and stoves are kept hot during the operating hours. According to the 2003 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey, most restaurants use 38.4kWh of electricity per square foot per year, which is approximately 77,000 kWh per year for a 2,000 ft2 restaurant.

Food trucks also require a heat source for cooking, so they typically use propane. During a year, an average food trailer will use about 900 gallons of propane a year, in addition to fuel requirements for driving around. Although this fuel is usually gasoline or diesel, catering trucks may also use vegetable oil or biodiesel. Furthermore, an onboard generator meets electricity needs. While generators are typically more polluting than grid-supplied electricity, food trailers demand less electricity and rely more on natural light.

Vehicle miles. Although restaurants can’t rack up miles traveling to customers, their customers are most likely traveling to get to these traditional eateries. In effect, a short trip by a food truck can often offset a number of small trips by customers that would have otherwise driven to a restaurant.

Waste. For the waste component in the food industry, it’s a tie between food trucks and restaurants. While some catering trucks are considered eco-friendly by using corn-based plastic, bagasse, or recycled paper takeout containers, they’re still creating wastes. In contrast, restaurants are able to use reusable plates, utensils and cups; however, take-out and fast food restaurants often rely heavily on take-out containers that are made of plastic and Styrofoam.

Is the winner clear yet? From this qualitative analysis, it’s obvious that mobile food stand usually produce less harmful environmental impacts. Of course, it is entirely possible that some restaurants will be more sustainable than other food trailers.

Remember, as a food truck owner you should take your customers’ concerns seriously. Your interest in environmental practices will retain loyal followers and attract new customers to your business.

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