23 October 2016
The food truck idea came from Financial Secretary John Tsang who seems fascinated with all things American. Photo: GovHK
The food truck idea came from Financial Secretary John Tsang who seems fascinated with all things American. Photo: GovHK

The phony and absurd food truck scheme

You can always tell when a new scheme is really dodgy; all that is required is to check whether the scheme’s name bears any relationship to reality.

So, from the off we know that the government’s food truck scheme is phony.

Real food trucks, as the name suggests, are vehicles that go from place to place selling food; in Hong Kong they will operate from a fixed location and are not allowed to move.

So far, so bad but it gets a whole lot worse when you know that a committee of bureaucrats is controlling the scheme and that applicants were required to take part in a “contest” to decide who would be awarded the contracts to operate these outlets.

Pleasing a committee composed of bureaucrats and alleged food experts and pleasing customers are two quite different things.

So, in a contest of this kind high marks are given for food offerings that are considered to be “edgy” or “creative”, and there is little incentive to provide the kind of really popular, and possibly basic food that customers actually like.

Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of the contracts will be given to food chain companies, leaving a few licenses for start-up operators and independents.

Having had over two decades of experience in the food industry I feel really sorry for the latter group as the chances of making money out of this nonsense scheme are pretty low.

Indeed the big chains who are in the scheme are already talking about how they will not make money but hope to use it for image building.

The newcomers have yet to discover the horrors of stage two of this process that will involve getting a license from the Food, Environment and Hygiene Department where the clipboard wielders are already salivating over the prospect of imposing new regulations for food trucks.

Anyone who is in the food business will tell you that this department’s main claim to fame is its general hostility to the food business and its severe dislike of innovation.

The department has a massive bureaucracy seemingly dedicated to making life difficult for the folks trying to make a living out of selling food.

The bureaucrats self-righteously claim that they are doing so to ensure food safety and protect the interests of the public.

The reality, however, is that they are so tied up enforcing petty regulations that they lose sight of the big picture and are massively ineffective in fulfilling their stated aims.

So, the food truck operators can look forward to many unhappy hours of form filling and dealing with the clipboard bureaucrats who cling tenaciously to the maxim of procrastination.

But all this begs the question as to why we even need to have a government scheme of this kind, bearing in mind that in places where food trucks flourish they do so entirely as a result of private initiative.

True, they need to get operating licenses but are spared the horrors of Hong Kong’s regulatory system.

Many successful food truck operators overseas not only visit a large number of locations but precisely because they are not part of a government scheme have the liberty to radically change their menus to accommodate customer’s demands, not the whims of bureaucrats.

In Hong Kong the bureaucrats always think they know best and that’s why this scheme was launched.

Its origins lie in Financial Secretary John Tsang’s fascination for all things American.

On a visit to the United States he noticed, possibly for the first time, that food trucks were doing a roaring trade and concluded that it would be a good idea if they were allowed to operate in Hong Kong.

However, in Hong Kong, which boasts of its commitment to free enterprise, the government does not really trust entrepreneurs and thinks that they need to be guided by the all-knowing bureaucracy and so this new form of eatery was deemed to be only possible if it came under the government’s wing.

What Tsang and all the rest of them seem not to have noticed is that Hong Kong has a strong indigenous tradition of food trucks selling humble but immensely popular food fare such as fish balls, steamed desserts and dim sum.

Moreover, they are sold from small stalls that are far more appropriate to Hong Kong’s crowded streets.

Guess what’s happening to these outlets. We all know the answer: they are being shut down and the operators are being prosecuted. Go figure.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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