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The case against the food trucks

Reggie Coachman, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, tries to make a case against giving food trucks freer rein downtown.

Currently there are more than 939 active mobile units permitted in the city of Houston, including 774 trucks and trailers equipped with kitchens. The Mobile Food Unit Coalition primarily represents a small number (less than 50) of those trucks. These trucks are chef-driven, entrepreneurial, comply with city codes and primarily serve the inner-loop community.

The city of Houston has two inspectors and one supervisor for these 939 units. Many of these trucks operate around the clock or during off hours, while the inspectors primarily work normal business hours. With only two inspectors, it is not possible for the city to enforce the existing regulations, much less loosened regulations.

If all food trucks complied with regulations, there would not be as much concern. However, neighborhoods across the 656 square miles of the city have had many problems with food trucks. Some of the trucks rarely move. Some have been witnessed disposing of their grease in city storm sewers. They have patrons that loiter nearby and engage in inappropriate behavior late into the night. Regulations require that a truck be moved and visit a commissary at least once during a 24-hour period. The current regulations were strengthened in recent years to better manage the problems created by quasi-permanent food trucks.

Mobile food units are by the very definition mobile businesses. In most cities, they are banned from having tables and chairs. They serve walk-up customers who are taking their food elsewhere to eat. To allow these vehicles to add tables and chairs in front of their trucks is allowing them to essentially operate a restaurant without complying with full standards required of restaurateurs or paying the accompanying taxes. Again, we do not believe that this is an issue with the proponents of these changes, but we already have serious issues with trucks operating in the parking lots of existing brick-and-mortar restaurants outside of Loop 610.

And to that point, let’s consider the impact to existing businesses. The Chronicle editorial claims that Houston is a foodie city. We agree. It is the existing restaurants that have brought us to this point. Restaurateurs who are strong entrepreneurs, many who started in small shops or as busboys for someone else and then built their own unique spaces, have helped elevate Houston to a food destination. These restaurants pay significant property taxes to the city. In a brick-and-mortar restaurant, sales taxes are tightly regulated and regularly submitted to the state. They hire many workers and add jobs to the economy.

In other words, it all boils down to benighted self-interest. We’ve all got bills to pay, and we’d all like to go about our business without more interference than necessary. I get that, and I don’t hold it against anyone, but that generally doesn’t make for a compelling argument. As Katharine Shilcutt documented at Tuesday’s council meeting where MFU Houston encountered resistance from various Council members and the GHRA, there are actually more inspectors per food truck than there are inspectors per restaurant, and as anyone who has ever watched the local news in this town well knows, brick-and-mortar restaurants have cleanliness issues sometimes, too. All this would be excusable, but then I read this:

New York City, which was mentioned in the editorial, is actually moving food trucks out of the city.

That piqued my curiosity, so I did a little Googling. I found the NYC Food Truck Association, and on their FAQ page, I found this:

Q – Why do NYC food trucks need advocates?
A – Running a food truck in NYC right now is very challenging. The current regulations make it very hard to find parking to vend and to hire staff quickly enough to keep up with seasonal demand. There have been a number of articles documenting these challenges:
Food Trucks Shooed From Midtown, New York Times
The rise and stall of food trucks, Crain’s NY
The NYCFTA is working with the Administration, City Agencies, City Council, Business Improvement Districts, and communities throughout New York City in order to help reinvent food truck vending in a way that is beneficial to the City, food truck entrepreneurs, and New Yorkers.

The key bit in that NYT story about why food trucks are now being ticketed by the cops is as follows:

David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association, which represents 24 vendors, said the police activity is a result of a May 24 ruling by Justice Geoffrey D. Wright in New York State Supreme Court (*). The decision reinforced a city Transportation Department regulation, believed to date from the 1950s, stating that no “vendor, hawker or huckster shall park a vehicle at a metered parking space” to offer “merchandise for sale from the vehicle.”

“Until now this law was very inconsistently enforced,” Mr. Weber said, “but now Judge Wright’s decision is trickling down to the precincts.”

In other words, the change in attitude towards food trucks in New York was not the result of a deliberate policy decision made by Mayor Bloomberg and/or New York’s City Council, but the sudden application of an obscure old city ordinance. Characterizing this as the city “moving the trucks out” – itself a falsehood, as trucks have recently established a presence near downtown – is a total distortion, and makes me much less inclined to take anything the GHRA says on the issue seriously. If there is a case to be made against the food trucks, let’s make it honestly, OK? CultureMap has more from the Council meeting.

One more thing: MFU Houston is asking for access to the Medical Center as well as downtown. Coachman’s piece mentions the Medical Center in passing, but focuses on downtown. Whatever the argument for keeping the current regulations on food trucks for downtown, I don’t see how they apply for the Medical Center, because there are no brick-and-mortar restaurants there. There’s hardly anyplace to eat in the Medical Center. I don’t know where the trucks would park in the Medical Center if allowed there, but their presence is desperately needed.

(*) – In New York, the Supreme Court is more or less the equivalent of a District Court in Texas. The top court in NY is the Appellate Court. My dad was a Supreme Court Justice in NY, so I know these things.

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  1. Eileen says:

    His arguments don’t stand scrutiny, as you point out. This is nothing but (mistaken) self-serving posturing, and he deserves to be called out on it. Personally, I don’t consider his opinion any more valid than any other citizen in Houston. Actually less so, because of the obvious conflict of interest.

    When I was in Northern Cali for 3 months for work, we had a wonderful Farmers Market near my house. It was held in a parking lot near to a small town with restaurants. They market was banned from serving hot foods, and it was basically because of interference from the town restaurants. This pissed me off so much I never once went to a restaurant in that downtown area. This is *not* the free market, guys. Not to mention, a spirit of cooperation might have served them much better — they could have set up a table at the market and thus drawn future customers who want a sit-down meal (which is not really in competition from a food truck anyway, in my opinion — these are two different markets).

    Likewise, these restuarants COULD set up a mobile option themselves. It’s certainly not a novel idea. But no, obstructionism instead. Why go for win-win when you can have lose-lose?

  2. Michael says:

    I am a fan of our food trucks in Austin. And I’m often a fan of the restaurants the food trucks turn into once they create a clientele and work out menus and suppliers.

    Kome has garnered national attention as a sushi place here, and it started as a food truck, parked semi-permanently across from the Long Center.

  3. robert says:

    I’ve always wondered how much of the sales tax they collect actually gets paid. Anyone that has had a cash business or knows someone that has……. come the end of the month/quarter it’s sometimes hard to part with that part.

    ANY of the food trucks I’ve been to in Houston have no cash registers to speak of.

    I get the purpose of having a commissary that needs to be visited every 24 hrs….. how else can they get their stuff cleaned PROPERLY, we take things for granted sometimes and then bitch about why government doesn’t do more, only after the fact when people get sick.

    But this is Houston, very reactive, not pro-active….

  4. sue says:

    thanks for doing the research and getting the facts out there…a lot of times speakers go to city hall and present information that is not factual or is partially true and everyone accepts it as facts..then when it gets repeated over and over it becomes truth….most people won’t take the time to check or research..favts are very important in making decisions especially when the issue is controversial or it is going to change the way things are usually done

  5. […] businesses into downtown. It’s not something Mayor Parker picked out of the blue. There is a somewhat disingenuous case against allowing food trucks downtown, though of course we don’t know yet if Hall buys into that or […]