Prize for Food Bike Big Idea: Low Capital, Low Footprint Alternative to Food Trucks

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[by Sustainable John, ERG Graduate Student]  

Food trucks are a billion dollar business in the U.S. already, and most of the growth has been seen in just the last five years. Along with this growth has come an increased carbon footprint, as the food trucks run their refrigeration and hot water tanks on gasoline generators.

The Food Bikery seeks to prove that food bikes are a safe, legal, low-capital, and low-footprint alternative to food trucks. In transitioning mobile food off of trucks and onto bicycles, the Food Bikery will stimulate economic opportunities for low-income citizens of the East Bay who would like to start mobile food businesses. We envision that the cost of a food bike can be $5,000 or lower, which is an order of magnitude less capital investment than an average food truck ($50,000) and two orders of magnitude less capital investment than an average restaurant ($500,000). Given that a person can potentially run a food bike business as a sole entrepreneur, we estimate the profit would be enough to make an hourly wage in the range of $20-25.

Average capital investment required for food businesses

In addition to the economic benefits, food bikes can offer these benefits to local communities:
  1. Decrease fossil fuel consumption and climate change emissions 
  2. Improve use of community space 
  3. Increase physical well-being and health and foster awareness about the power of bicycles 
  4. Increase awareness about where food comes from and how it is prepared 

The Food Bikery has been launched as an entrepreneurial idea by myself and Jason Trager (Mechanical Engineering PhD candidate and local bicycle king). We recently applied to the UC Berkeley Big Ideas competition, and we received a third place prize for $2000 in the clean energy category. I put in a couple months of research and interviews into the grant application. In doing so, I met a handful of food bike enthusiasts who are featured in the short film above, including Curbside Creamery, El Taco Bike, and Apothocurious/Hot Bike.

Additionally, I have done more in-depth research on the code for mobile food facilities. Essentially, if you’re cooking food on a bike trailer, you are subject to line item requirements of refrigeration, three sinks, and 20 gallons of water in order to meet code. That’s why you don’t see food bikes doing any cooking at public events and markets. The ones that exist serve hot or cold pre-packaged foods at public events or simply cater to private events. We want to see a food bike that can cook at public markets, while still being safe, legal, and healthy. The inspiration for food bikes originally came to me when I was living in Beijing, and I ate a lot of street food off of food bikes, including my personal favorite: jian bing, the Chinese crepe. Two years ago, I started a food bike called Jian Bing Johnny’s that I could bring to events to serve this food to the masses, and since then I have been searching for avenues to get food bikes permitted.

Our next steps are to do some policy and legal work in the cities of Berkeley and Oakland to modify some ordinances to allow food bikes to operate and then to build our first official prototype. The $2,000 prize from Big Ideas has gotten us off to a great start, but we need to raise some additional money in order to get our project fully up and running.

Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.

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