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Food Trucks: Tasty, But Tricky
Food trucks like the Fojol Brothers' can enliven urban spaces, but regulators haven't figured out how to treat them yet.  Photo: jsmjr, Flickr.

Food trucks like the Fojol Brothers' can enliven urban spaces, but regulators haven't figured out how to treat them yet. Photo by jsmjr on Flickr.

Yesterday morning, Prince of Petworth pointed out the opening of DC’s newest food truck, Sauca.  You can track its location here.

Sauca is the latest addition to our local food cart explosion, joining the likes of the Fojol Brothers, SweetFlow and On the Fly.  To foodies’ delight, street food has been popping up all over D.C. and across the nation.  These carts are not your typical National Mall-hot dog-and-pretzel stands, but a new breed of gourmet, tech-savvy food trucks.  Many of them are “mobile” in more ways than one, using Twitter to alert followers of their ever-changing locations, and lengthy Twitter lists keep track of food carts across America.  There’s an entire podcast series, VendrTV, highlighting curbside vendors around the world.  New York City even hosts an annual event dedicated to honoring the city’s best street vendors, the Vendys!

Planners are thrilled at the food cart craze too, as carts can enliven the urban environment and revive dead spaces, such as parking lots.  In times of recession, street food seems even more important, providing affordable eating options to citizens and allowing culinary entrepreneurs to open businesses with lower start-up costs.

However, this trend has developed in spite of the challenges facing mobile food vendors.  Food carts don’t seem to fit into cities’ normal regulatory structures – they’re mobile and can cross jurisdictional lines, but they also need to park, and are often not welcome in public or private spaces. They sell food and need to pass health inspections, but they’re not traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants. They offer a service to customers but not necessarily amenities like restrooms.  D.C. is no stranger to these complexities, as discussed in this Washington Post article tracing the history of the food cart scene.

In 2004, D.C. created a downtown demonstration zone where the street vending rules were relaxed.  Soon after, the city lifted its moratorium on new vending licenses, and in 2007, it started granting new licenses.  The problem was that the necessary studies and legislative work with the D.C. Council was not completed as quickly as expected, so the old regulations remained in place.  This meant that vendors outside the demonstration zone had to deal with outdated rules like the following:

  • Carts must be no more than 7 feet long and 4 ½ feet wide, which makes it hard to cook/sell anything too complex
  • Carts must be stored in one of three depots overnight (the Post had some interesting comments on the politics behind these depots)
  • There must be a 10-foot cushion between carts, making outdoor cart clusters or “food courts” difficult
  • There must be a 300-foot buffer between any church and carts

Three years later, street vendors are still in the same boat.  The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has proposed new rules for mobile food vending, but the D.C. Council has yet to approve them.

D.C. is not alone in its predicament.  Mobile food vendors are having a tough time across the country, and local governments seem unable to reach a solution, which would undoubtedly involve the thorny approach of cross-agency cooperation.  As a result, food cart entrepreneurs face issues such as:

  • Being forbidden to park for more than one hour at a time in a certain location unless they can provide restrooms (Tulare County, Calif.)
  • A patchwork of different regulations and permit requirements for food trucks operating in a wider area (Los Angeles)
  • Zoning rules blocking private property from being used for hosting food trucks (Santa Monica, Calif.)

Portland, Ore. seems to be one of the few places where observers have positive things to say about food cart regulations.  “The City has stayed out of the way, mostly,” says one professional who has worked with food trucks.  As long as stationary mobile carts have functional wheels, an axle for towing, and are located in a commercial zone, they are considered vehicles and are not required to conform to the zoning or building code.  The city encourages food carts on private property, and “pods” of carts cluster in parking lots, often never leaving the space and paying a monthly fee of about $500.  Electricity and wastewater disposal issues are primarily addressed on a complaint-driven basis.  Licenses are affordable (around $300), and the health department regulates food carts in the same way that all businesses that prepare and sell food products are regulated.

The most commonly heard complaint is that with their lower overhead and fewer land use and building permitting requirements, carts compete unfairly with conventional restaurants.  The City attempts to mediate these disputes.

Portland continues to be proactive about developing its food cart policy.  Recognizing the importance of food carts to the city goals of workforce development, equitable economic opportunity and livability, the government recently commissioned a study of the effects of food trucks.  Additionally, the Portland Bureau of Transportation has proposed the installation of food carts in the mostly vacant lots next to transit stations.

On the other hand, it seems like other cities have a long way to go in understanding and capitalizing on the benefits of food trucks.  With D.C.’s budding network of innovative street vendors and growing foodie scene, the city should step up and create a model for the rest of the country to follow.  Of late, local policymakers have shown great interest in implementing temporary urbanism and creatively activating underused spaces.  Figuring out the food truck conundrum would fit right into this progressive urban agenda.