Dear Pablo: The latest craze seems to be food trucks and I want to know, which is greener: food trucks or restaurants?
Food trucks have become the latest foodie fad, with mobile gourmet canteens flooding the domain of roach coaches all across the US. Aside from just being part of the general trend in increasing nutritional awareness among consumers of food truck meals, food trucks are now also providing a restaurant alternative to hipsters and yuppies. With this demographic’s keen interest in the declining state of our environment, it is only natural to wonder which has a lower impact on the environment: a food truck or a restaurant. Of course, there are many components, so let’s take a look at a few.

Food Truck vs Restaurant: Location, Location, Location

While restaurants rely on brick and mortar locations, food trucks have a much smaller footprint and can go to where their customers are. Since food trucks serve customers on sidewalks, there is little infrastructure (aside from perhaps a small commercial kitchen for preparing food) that needs to be maintained.A restaurant, on the other hand, has a kitchen, dining area, and bathrooms that need to be illuminated, heated or air conditioned, and cleaned regularly. The restaurant always occupies its physical location, even during non-business hours, while the food truck occupies a curb-side spot during meal times and returns to a parking lot for the rest of the day. There is no disputing that the physical footprint of the food truck is smaller.

Edge: Food Trucks


Food Truck vs Restaurant: Energy Use

Along with a restaurant’s physical location comes the need for electricity and natural gas to maintain comfortable temperatures, and provide light for dining customers. Cooking is typically done with natural gas and griddles are often kept hot all day long. According to the 2003 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), most restaurants are between 1,000 and 5,000 square feet and use 38.4 kWh of electricty per square foot per year (that’s 77,000 kWh per year for a 2,000 ft2restaurant), and 141.2 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot per year (that’s about 2824 therms per year for a 2,000 ft2 restaurant). 

Food trucks also require a heat source for cooking, typically propane. From comments on a food truck forum I ascertained that a food truck would use about 900 gallons of propane per year. Food trucks have the additional fuel requirements for driving around. This fuel is either gasoline or diesel but some food trucks use vegetable oil or biodiesel. I would estimate the annual fuel use at around 1,200 gallons. This fuel is sometimes also consumed by an onboard generator for electricity needs. While generators are typically more polluting than grid-supplied electricity, food trucks have less electricity demand since they have no dining area or bathrooms, and rely a lot more on natural light.

Edge: Food Trucks


Food Truck vs Restaurant: Vehicle Miles

It is obvious that a restaurant itself doesn’t consume any vehicle fuels but a food truck certainly does. However, a short trip by a food truck to an office park, construction site, or neighborhood park can offset a number of small trips by customers that would have otherwise driven to a restaurant. Of course some restaurants cater or provide delivery service, but this is essentially the same as the customer driving to the restaurant. 

New smartphone apps like Food Truck Fiesta and Eat St. have foodies travelling to meet their favorite vendor (but we hope that most of them do it on foot or by bike).

Edge: Food Trucks


Food Truck vs Restaurant: Waste

Eco-groovy food trucks use corn-based plastic, bagasse, or recycled paper take-out containers for serving their goods but this still creates waste. Sit-down restaurants have the edge here because they use reusable plates, cups, and utensils that are washed on-site, but take-out and fast-food restaurants rely heavily on take-out containers as well. Those single-use containers are often made from plastic and Styrofoam. 

Some food trucks are serious about composting but the customers and the food trucks don’t always stick around long enough for the compostable containers and food scraps to be collected for composting. Restaurants, on the other hand, are able to collect almost all of their food scraps for composting (where available) or sending it to be used as feed at a farm. The National Restaurant Association estimates that 20 percent of all food prepared commercially in
the United States goes to waste.

Edge: It’s a Draw


And The Winner Is…

Putting numbers to this answer would vary widely, depending on the restaurants and food trucks in question, but the qualitative analysis above clearly favors the food truck.
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