Hong Kong’s struggling food trucks may soon be taken off the road after more than four years in service, with the government refusing to rule out ditching the scheme when it expires early next year.
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah on Wednesday admitted the troubled programme might not survive a government review of its effectiveness during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Food trucks as a tourism facility in Hong Kong have limited room for development,” he told lawmakers. “The Tourism Commission is critically reviewing the data and the effectiveness of the scheme so as to determine its way forward, and does not rule out the possibility of bringing the scheme to an end eventually.”
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Former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah floated the food truck idea in 2015. It was touted as a way to spice up the city’s street-food scene and boost tourism.
The scheme was eventually launched amid much fanfare in February 2017, with 15 trucks selling a variety of easy-to-eat snacks and light meals, such as pineapple buns, fried noodles and salads.
The programme was extended the following year to February 2021, before it was prolonged again to the same month next year.
While the business model seemed promising at first, operators soon complained about the rules, such as limiting them to designated spots and requiring them to move locations every two weeks.
Yau said currently only 12 trucks were still in operation. As of late May, only five were running and their gross revenue had dropped significantly since the project’s launch.
From January 2020 to late May this year, the revenue of all the operators was HK$2.67 million, compared with HK$8.9 million in the first four months.
The economic devastation of Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on the eateries on wheels, which at the outset of the health crisis were still trying to recover from the affect of the anti-government protests in 2019, even with rent concessions.
Most have tried to weather the storm by storing their trucks in car parks, and they remain unsure of what lies ahead.
Since the emergence of the Covid-19 crisis, eight venues where the trucks can operate have periodically closed because of social-distancing rules, including Disneyland, Ocean Park and Wong Tai Sin Square.
Yau pointed out that if truck operators decided to quit the scheme, they could surrender their licences to the government and terminate their agreements with the operating venues.
“The way forward of the scheme would be subject to a critical review,” he said. “The Tourism Commission will not accept any new applications for food truck operation to fill any vacancies.”
Gordon Lam Sui-wa, chairman of the Hong Kong Food Truck Federation, who spent about HK$1 million running the Table Seven x W. Burger food truck, said he had already left the scheme, surrendering his truck licence in February.
“I expect the government will give up on the scheme very soon,” he said. “The only spots that can make money are the Disneyland park and West Kowloon Cultural District. Many truck operators have invested a lot of money but they’ve suffered hefty losses.”
He blamed Yau for the scheme’s failure, accusing the commerce chief of lacking the will to promote the programme.
“Edward Yau has never bothered with the scheme,” he said. “He has just acted as a civil servant to carry out John Tsang’s plan, but he never cared to promote it or help the operators.”
Another operator, Ben Liu Chun-ho, who runs Ma Ma Dumpling, said “the scheme is useless” and had stopped running his truck, which was parked in Kwun Tong.
Tourism lawmaker Yiu Si-wing urged officials to talk to operators and understand their thoughts before making any decisions about the scheme.
“If many operators insist on continuing their truck business, the government should keep the scheme going and offer some kind of support to them,” he said. “I hope the government does not give up on this scheme so easily.”
He said the government should give the trucks more choice on where to operate, while exploring further rent concessions for them.