Tiny Storefronts (By the Sidewalk)

A neat way of looking at food trucks and tiny businesses

I saw this interesting observation on Bluesky (which I’m now on) and screenshotted it to share on Twitter, where it got a whole bunch of likes:

In some sense it’s obvious that food trucks are basically mobile restaurants, which is to say mobile storefronts. But this is one of those insights—similar to the idea that cars cause most of the “noisiness” in cities—that can make you stop and think and see the world a little differently.

Our relative lack of small, flexible, affordable commercial space—especially, unfortunately, in new developments, which are often managed by large companies and designed for chain retail—manifests itself as food trucks, food halls, unpermitted home-based businesses, and other sorts of small-scale informal commerce.

These tiny businesses are small urban storefronts in the same sense that some large share of exurban housing is urban housing. A need will find its expression. When growing cities don’t build housing, that housing ends up in an outer-ring suburb. When we underbuild cheap, small, flexible commercial space, business ends up taking other forms.

America’s suburban status quo distorts and reshapes human activity. Suburbia makes human-scaled activity and commerce feel odd, unusual, or suspicious. You’ll see, out in the suburbs, the occasional food truck in an underused parking lot, which may or may not strictly speaking be permitted to be there. You’ll see people selling fresh fruit or drinks out of little stands near strip malls, or a guy hacking open coconuts out of a pickup truck. Sometimes you’ll see home-based businesses on Google Maps: bakeries or tailors or other low-intensity businesses hiding inside nondescript houses.

Most of this is not totally allowed, and it is often done by working-class immigrants, in older and sometimes run-down suburbs, which reinforces the perception that only desperate people do business like this. But what we’re really seeing is completely normal human activity rendered questionable by a poor built environment and regulatory regime.

The answer is not to marginalize or punish the people who do what humans have always done, but to put small-scale commerce back in reach for all Americans. Imagine, for example, a country in which this were still widely permitted:

This is a block of five small old homes in Falls Church, Virginia, all of which are or were businesses at one point, and two of which have small storefronts built onto the front: what’s known as an “accessory commercial unit.” These tiny home/business structures are likely to be redeveloped; they were for sale the last time I drove by. Why does this matter?

It might not be easy to imagine, but I’ll help you. My wife and I visited Croatia in 2022, and one of our meals was in a private house, where an elderly woman who lived alone hosted two or four diners a couple of nights a week, serving a completely homemade fixed menu. No dealing with wholesale suppliers or any of the other work of running or managing a restaurant. She simply loved cooking and got to share it for money. She had basically monetized a dinner party.

That kind of thing is out of reach for the average American, unless they’re willing to break the law or go through permitting, licensing, and paperwork that is more or less designed to regulate such enterprises out of existence. And that’s in localities where it isn’t completely banned. I wonder how many amorphous problems and discontents come down to the difficulty of doing anything in America—not only in suburbia, but even in cities. Cities, too, are governed by zoning and regulatory codes that force the scale of business up. Good urbanism, whether in legacy cities or in suburbs, should lower barriers to entry: barriers to getting around, to running errands, to meeting people, to accessing opportunity, and to engaging in commerce and entrepreneurship.

There are a number of reforms we could make to open up more room for small enterprise. We could allow accessory commercial units and home-based businesses in many more places, and simplify the rules for such businesses, especially those which don’t generate excessive noise or traffic. Another simple reform is removing the parking requirements for small businesses, which are so expensive to meet that they make it impossible for many small businesses to pencil.

Municipalities can also step in more directly. Some towns have experimented with small business incubator programs. Some of these, like a program in Virginia, revolve around offering affordable commercial space as well as resources like access to expertise and financing. Others are more focused on the space itself, often tiny “pop-up” buildings on underused or vacant lots, which cater to public-facing businesses like small boutiques and restaurants.

The idea is that these businesses can eventually “graduate” to full-size spaces. But the smallest full-size spaces are still too big for many businesses to manage or afford. This is why in the long run we need to ratchet down the scale of development as well as simplify rules.

None of this is to suggest that food trucks are somehow a problem—in a world of more abundant small-scale commercial space they would probably still exist anyway. But they also clearly fill a niche that our built environment too often fails to supply. All small-scale commerce should be easier. That includes food trucks, or this mobile coffee/beer bar on an e-bike, or glorified sheds that give ordinary people a low-stakes environment to pilot a business idea, or food halls, or actual tiny storefronts.

Occasionally you’ll see them in suburbia, as in Eden Center, in Falls Church, Virginia.

Sometimes you’ll see them in old towns, squeezing in between larger buildings. 

But these appear as rarities; novelties. They shouldn’t be. Too many of our trendy curiosities today are simply good urbanism, artificially restricted. Build and permit this stuff until it’s boring, ordinary, and everywhere.

Addison Del Mastro is a Partner Writer for the Resident Urbanist. He writes from Northern Virginia on urbanism, retail, cultural history, and other assorted issues, with a focus on the ideas and psychology behind urbanism. Of particular interest to him are small towns, the ongoing urbanization and "growing up" of the suburbs, and what urbanism looks like outside of the big city. He runs The Deleted Scenes. You can follow him on Twitter, Threads, and Bluesky.

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