Food trucks: A bureaucrat's dream that's failed

April 21, 2017 18:30
Only 12 of the trucks chosen to take part in the scheme have actually got off the ground. Photo: HKEJ

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that the government’s absurd food trucks scheme is unraveling just two months after its less than stellar launch.

Its demise was predicted by myself and others before the scheme was launched, not least by people in the food industry who quickly identified why it was not going to work.

As matters stand, only 12 of the trucks chosen to take part in the scheme have actually got off the ground. One company has dropped out and another three are struggling to make their way through the bureaucratic fog before they can launch.

Four of the government-designated sites for the trucks have proved to be duds and so more sites are being offered.

Meanwhile, customers have been complaining about high prices, eyebrows have been raised over the lack of fulfillment of original claims about how this scheme will bring innovative and quality food to the market.

And as for the claim about how it would boost the reputation of local cuisine, well that’s just a joke.

The crucial problem here is the hubris and stupidity of the bureaucrats who dreamed up this scheme and even now remain in denial over their failure.

In other places where food trucks flourish, such as New York and London, they’ve been established by can-do entrepreneurs with lively ideas.

Costs are minimal because there is no overbearing bureaucracy stipulating what they must do, and, crucially, they move around catching customers at their convenience and are not stuck in fixed locations according to the dictates of officials sitting in air-conditioned offices filling out forms.

In Hong Kong regulation and control is the name of the game. It started with a bunch of po-faced bureaucrats and "food experts" presiding over a so-called Cook Off Challenge to determine who qualified to take part in the scheme.

The bureaucrats then hit the winners with a bulky set of regulations including seven annexes of rules and requirements.

Among these rules were stipulations about where they could go and, astonishingly, a requirement stipulating that menu changes could only be made following bureaucrat approval.

Whereas in other jurisdictions food trucks are generally operated from reconditioned second-hand vehicles, in Hong Kong operators had to buy new vehicles and meet fitting-out specifications making them very costly.

One operator spent HK$1 million, others have not publicly disclosed their costs but even this very large amount is not the end of the story because there is a raft of other expenses to be met before the trucks get anywhere near a customer.

So, instead of encouraging new entrants to the industry this scheme has a built-in bias towards existing food chains and the relatives of very rich people.

But even well-heeled truck operators need to be aware of the bottom line so their prices are accordingly high and customers have been complaining.

They can’t offer really simple, tasty food that Hong Kong people used to buy from street hawkers before they were hounded off the streets.

Why? Because the busybodies administering the farcical cook off were looking for something ever so sophisticated.

This meant that even much loved items had to have a twist; whatever that means.

Greg So, the designated government food boss, has announced some relaxation of the rules for the food truck scheme to stop it going entirely off the rails.

But this tinkering will not work; indeed it only serves to underline the basic fallacies of this enterprise.

There is a simple lesson to be learned here: government bureaucrats are lousy entrepreneurs and make entrepreneurs lousy when they regulate their every move.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.