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Bacolod City, Philippines Friday, March 2, 2018
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Come To Think Of It
with Carlos Antonio L. Leonardia

Food trucks


What is the difference between an ambulant food vendor, an ambulant food cart and a food truck?

The way I understand it, the first one, or the “manug libud,” is the modern version of the traditional food vendor our parents (or grandparents for my younger or millennial readers) grew up with. They have a flat woven tray or “nigu” where the native, handmade, artisanal and single origin goodies, are placed which the vendor would balance on his or her head as they made their daily rounds and visit their suki’s.

Modern manug libuds don’t have a nigu but use a plastic box and the words handmade, artisanal and native rarely describe their wares, but they still make the rounds in many of our schools and offices today. They probably still belong to the underground economy, but they rarely inconvenience others because of the mobile nature of their livelihood.

The next one would be the ambulant food cart or vendors that take over sidewalks in high traffic areas or near schools. These vendors have somehow managed to sequester sections of the sidewalk for their business. Some have a small table that they set up at the “side” of the sidewalk, others have trisikads that are parked either on the sidewalk or on the curb. Common wares include banana-que, camote-que, barbeque, fried chicken, kwek kwek, pancakes, fishballs, tempura, etc.

These vendors provide cheap food alternatives that aren’t that bad if you come to think of it and many of us continue to patronize these vendors either because of budget constraints or a sense of nostalgia. Most of them probably belong to the underground economy, so they neither pay taxes nor bother with sanitary permits. How they get to secure their spots, the barangay chairmen and their merry band of tanods probably know.

It is possible that the convenience these vendors provide could make up for how they practically take over sidewalks but because neither barangay officials nor city officials seem to be willing to do anything about them, we don’t ask ourselves these questions anymore. We simply consider the convenience they offer as the price to pay for their intrusions and the risks we are forced to take by walking on the roadside when sidewalks are abuzz with underground economic activity.

The newest entry to the ambulant vendor arena would be the food truck. These are the businesses that involve full-sized vehicles parked on the curb doing business with pedestrians in high foot traffic areas which in case we haven’t noticed, are also high vehicular traffic and limited parking areas of our cities. I consider them the manug-libud on steroids and with ultimate squatter mode activated.

Unlike the American food trucks we see in cable TV, our food trucks are smaller and apparently less regulated. In my case, I consider any vehicle that takes up the curb or parking space a food truck, be it a LA-style foodtruck like the ones we see in food truck shows, or a tricycle-cum-food truck that sells bananaque. My own personal rule of thumb says that if it’s parked on the sidewalk, it’s a vendor. If it’s parked illegally on the curb, it’s a food truck. In both cases, we have no way of knowing if the parking/business is legal or illegal but with the way things are run, the easiest assumption to make is these are all underground/illegal businesses/squatters/parkers.

We have seen the rise of the multicab-sized food truck in recent years. I don’t know if they have the necessary permits to operate, but they are out there. Because they are much bigger and require more capital than your regular manug-libud or sidewalk vendor, I’m assuming that these food trucks have at the very least registered with the city or barangay. In that case, we can also assume that they have the necessary sanitary permits.

My beef with these food trucks is that they strike anywhere and park anywhere and our local government officials don’t seem to care where they do their business. My favorite example of food truck saturation is along La Salle Avenue, just before the bridge if you are on your way to USLS. The curb along that road is filled with food trucks and nobody seems to do anything about it, so I’m guessing that they have somehow secured permission to occupy that strip of public domain. If they have secured the rights to temporarily own the curb for their parking and the sidewalk for their customers during rush hour, I don’t see any document that gives them the right to do what they do. If they don’t own those rights, then it would be the inaction of city and barangay officials that have given them those rights by way of capitulation.

The food trucks that have been popping up all over, not just in that area I used as an example, need to be regulated by local governments. There are so many questions that come to mind when I see a food truck parked at the sidewalk and start to occupy public areas for its business. Which particular areas of our towns and cities are they allowed to use? What times are they allowed? How much of the sidewalk/curb/road are they allowed to occupy? Do they pay any fees and who collects those fees? Should they be allowed in areas where traffic and congestion is already a problem? What do they do with their trash?

Anyone who watches food truck shows would see that they are a great incubator for innovative food and up and coming chefs that would ultimately benefit our food scene and that is always a good thing. I would love for our version of food trucks to succeed and graduate to being full sized restaurants that would employ more people and provide better options. But as they grow from small-time to medium scale, they have to follow and respect the rules and contribute to the growth of the entire food community and not just their own selfish businesses.

That is why we have government. Is it possible for us to have the best of both worlds?*


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