Truckstops, restaurants see threat from rest-area food trucks

Truckstop operators, restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations have cautioned federal regulators about their decision to ease restrictions that allow food trucks to operate at rest areas.

Last week the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) began to temporarily allow food trucks to operate at rest stops along interstate highways to provide more options for truck drivers amid retail closures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to FHWA on Wednesday, a coalition of 11 groups including NATSO, which represents travel centers and truckstops, the National Restaurant Association, National Association of Convenience Stores and the Petroleum Marketers Association of America acknowledged the agency’s “outside-the-box thinking” in allowing the states to operate food trucks within the interstate right-of-way during the COVID-19 emergency.

“This is especially true with respect to ensuring that our nation’s truck drivers have access to places where they can rest and buy food as they move and deliver essential goods and supplies,” the coalition noted.

But the group also emphasized that the “tens of thousands” of off-highway foodservice businesses they represent are fighting to stay open and keep people employed.

“We hope that FHWA’s non-enforcement directive does not result in foodservice transactions being redirected to food trucks from nearby rest area vending machines or struggling off-highway businesses, but rather that food trucks operate solely at rest areas that are located on stretches of the interstate system where there are no open food service operations in close proximity that are available to truck drivers,” the group stated.

“In addition, we respectfully ask that you commit to not further expanding this non-enforcement guidance beyond food trucks during this epidemic, and once the state of emergency ends immediately revert back to enforcing the long-standing ban on commercializing interstate rest areas.”

In its own letter to FHWA on April 8, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents small-business trucking companies, praised the agency for taking action on food trucks, noting that “many restaurants, travel centers and truck stops have closed entirely, reduced hours of operations, restricted access to drive-thru or implemented other limitations that hamper the ability of drivers to find meals.”

OOIDA also criticized NATSO for an alleged “call-to-action” issued by NATSO to its membership urging resistance to FHWA’s efforts, contending that it comes down to a competition issue.

“It looks as though NATSO wants drivers to remain largely beholden to truck stops at all times, even during a national crisis,” said OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer in a statement. “With such a totally self-centered and short-sighted perspective, we are not surprised they are fighting even temporary support for truckers in getting the meals they desperately need and are struggling to find while on the road.”

Tiffany Wlazlowski Neuman, NATSO’s Vice President of Public Affairs, acknowledged that an email was sent out to members on April 8 but that it “was consistent with the letter to FHWA.”

In responding to OOIDA’s assertions on a desire to monopolize food options, Neuman said that NATSO does not oppose food trucks at rest areas where other options aren’t available during an emergency. “Though we’re sure OOIDA wants to do what is right by their members, their position on rest area food trucks could actually end up hurting truck drivers,” Neuman told FreightWaves.

She said there should be agreement among private retailers and OOIDA on three points: that drivers can’t shower at rest areas, they can’t fuel at rest areas, and 9 of every 10 parking spaces for drivers are at truckstops.

Responding to OOIDA’s assertions regarding truckstop closures, Neuman had “not heard of a single truckstop that has shut down during the pandemic,” she said. “Truckstops are open and our number one concern remains ensuring that America’s truck drivers have places where they can eat and rest. We believe that the best way to ensure that is to help truckstops navigate, survive and stay open during this pandemic.”

Neuman also pointed out that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued guidelines listing truckstops as essential businesses, and that every state that has issued a lockdown or stay at home order has allowed truckstops to remain open. She also noted that truckstops are offering takeout food, as well as drive-thru, delivery and grab-and-go options.