Head to Head: Should cities regulate where and when food trucks operate?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 13A

THE ISSUE: As food trucks grow in popularity and become more of a presence in cities, a fight has emerged over how they should be regulated. Should cities monitor them for food safety only? Or restrict the time and place where they can operate?

Pia Lopez: Yes, within reason

Mobile eateries, the latest foodie craze, should be celebrated and encouraged. They fill a niche for low-cost, hip food on the go.

Of course food trucks should be subject to the same oversight as restaurants by health authorities. Protecting the public from food-borne illness as well as insect and rodent infestations is a basic government function.

And just as conventional restaurants can't open just anywhere, cities should be able to license food trucks and set some limits on the time and place of mobile food sales – as cities do in limiting liquor licenses or keeping chemical plants zoned away from schools.

That said, many cities have regulations on food trucks that are far too restrictive.

In Sacramento, for example, outdated ordinances ban food trucks from parking longer than 30 minutes in any place. They have to close at 6 p.m. in winter and 8 p.m. in summer. In Elk Grove, it's worse – food trucks can't stay in one place longer than 15 minutes or sell past 2 p.m.

A tentative compromise in Sacramento would make things somewhat better – lengthening the time food trucks could stay parked to 1.5 hours downtown and 2.5 hours elsewhere, and allowing them to stay open later.

That's still too restrictive.

That said, some food truck advocacy groups go too far in saying that only food safety should be regulated.

Thriving Portland, Ore., is a model for what cities should do. Food trucks must get a food service license and pass a health inspection. They must have a licensed commissary base of operations, where they are stored and serviced every day. All food handlers must be certified. Food trucks have to get approval for any change in their menu. They must have a plan for garbage disposal.

In Portland, food trucks have to list all locations where they plan to sell food, and notify the health department of any changes.

Food trucks haven't drawn draconian time and place regulations because they have been attentive to location and cleanliness. They search for vacant lots and vacant parking areas and create what one observer has called "improvised village plazas where neighbors gather (and spend)." These have been dubbed "mobile food pods."

Truly entrepreneurial food trucks don't poach off other food operations in a "beggar thy neighbor" fashion or leave litter behind.

The aim of regulation should be to allow a culture of lively competition to flourish while assuring that fly-by-night vendors don't plop a food truck in front of homes at 3 a.m., on private property or in the middle of a city sidewalk without a permit.

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.

Ben Boychuk: Yes, but as little as possible

Restricting where and when food trucks may operate is really about stifling competition under the guise of health and safety.

Mobile food vendors – not those down market "roach coaches" of yore, but the cutting-edge gourmet kind all the cool kids follow on Twitter – pose a threat to brick-and-mortar restaurants. Although both businesses run on razor-thin margins, trucks have certain advantages: mobility, convenience, popularity and, of course, price.

While some brick-and-mortars have taken an entrepreneurial if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach and rolled out food trucks of their own, most restaurants loathe their mobile competitors.

Trouble is, state and local lawmakers can't simply bar the trucks from parking within a certain distance of restaurants.

Heaven knows, some of them would like to. At one point, the proposed Elk Grove ordinance would have required food trucks to stay 350 feet from brick-and-mortar establishments. But city staffers pointed out that Los Angeles tried the same thing a few years ago, only to see the law unceremoniously tossed out by a Superior Court judge.

Flagrant restraint of trade may be illegal, but regulators have a vast toolbox at the ready.

The City of Angels came back with an ordinance the City Council drafted in consultation with the county health department. The new law, which took effect in January 2011, imposed an A-B-C grading system similar to the one restaurants have operated under for years.

The law also requires that trucks have access to a restroom within 200 feet of their location, and mandates health inspections twice yearly.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn't it? Food truck owners actually welcomed the rules.

In practice, however, city and county regulators have enforced the law with draconian zeal. Instead of two health-and-safety reviews a year, truck owners complain it's not uncommon for health inspectors to show up twice a month. Tiny violations – such as parking 201 feet from a restroom – beget hefty fines and low grades. It's absurd.

Other cities have taken similarly anti-competitive approaches, often in the name of "protecting children." From what? Grilled brie sandwiches and kimchi tacos?

At some level, of course, licensing and regulation offers the public assurance that a business isn't trying to sicken or kill its customers (at least, not on purpose.) But I fail to see how submitting menu changes for government approval, as Portland requires and Pia seems to endorse, serves the public good. Imagine if a restaurant's daily specials required a bureaucrat's imprimatur. Nobody would sit still for it.

If food trucks are going to thrive, government needs to enforce a few basic rules equally – and otherwise get out of the way and let people eat in peace.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)

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