Food Trucks in the City: The issues (updated)
This article first appeared on Spetember 27. It was updated on September 29, 2011 at 1:45 p.m.
Over the last week or so several of our area’s food writers have worked diligently to garner public support for Buffalo’s food trucks. We’ve always done so, by extolling the edible virtues of each truck through reviews and articles, but it is now more necessary than ever.
The Buffalo Common Council was asked to provide fair legislation regarding food trucks long before Lloyd served up its first taco in the summer of 2010. Prior to pulling up to its home at Main and Mohawk, owners Pete Cimino and Christopher Dorsaneo had done all that they could to navigate the bounty of paperwork, red tape, and double talk provided to them at both City Hall and Buffalo Place, the organization in charge of vendor licensing (among other things) in and around Main Street. The two eager entrepreneurs felt that if they played by the rules, shook hands, kissed babies, and worked with the governing bodies controlling the future of serving food from a mobile truck that eventually fair legislation would be enacted. They were wrong. At least so far.
So far, no legislation has led to mayhem. Lloyd, which has now been joined by several other food trucks in its quest to sate the hunger of downtown’s hungry lunch crowd, was given the option to purchase a permit to operate as a vendor, without the privilege of mobility, by Buffalo Place. There they have vended throughout the year. They were such a success that Buffalo Place actually created six additional spots on and near Main Street for food trucks to vend from this summer. In addition to their Main Street locations, the food trucks have the right to operate on private property with the permission of the owner. In some instances, food trucks have paid for that permission, in others they have been invited guests. In both instances, the rights of that private property owner should protect them, but this spring, that changed. Businesses within the proximity of a private lot where a truck was vending discovered that since there is no legislation for trucks, they could simply call the police and have the police ask the truck to leave, whether the owner of the private lot wanted the truck to go or not. This tactic has now been instituted by competing restaurant owners as a way to force the trucks to leave their neighborhood.
All the while, the truck owners have largely kept their cool in an attempt to garner the partnership and assistance of the Common Council in developing written legislation that was fair and would bring the use of the police to an end. They could have called a lawyer (in fact several loyal customers who happen to be attorneys offered their help), or they could have caused a media maelstrom. But even when the Common Council concluded several meetings without settling the issue—despite it being the height of food truck season—the food truck owners waited patiently.
The issue was finally addressed at the last Common Council session before its summer recess in late summer, with local restaurant owners making statements condemning the existence of food trucks in our city. These owners gave several reasons why they felt trucks should not be allowed. They cited the fact that food trucks don’t pay property taxes and therefore should not be considered legitimate businesses. They suggested that the food trucks would pull up in front of their businesses—which they referred to using the industry term “brick and mortars”—and divert potential customers. They also said that food trucks didn’t have to deal with all of the bureaucracy that other restaurant owners must cope with and that this provided an unfair advantage.
Other concerns connected to the trucks that have been raised over the course of the last year are whether or not eating food from a food truck is safe, the possibility of increased litter caused by the presence of a truck, and proper permitting of the vehicles.
Let me say that I know firsthand that what all the current operators of trucks have been asking all along is for legislation that would address these concerns and allow them to operate without the threat of being shut down mid-service. Most of them realize that free roaming is not an option on the table, and they are willing to work with the city to develop legislation that works.
Even when the team of brick and mortar business owners approached the Common Council and the press afterward with coarse attitudes, the food trucks could have hired a lawyer, or started a petition, or done something as a united front, but they didn’t. Instead, most of them continued to work within the parameters of the situation, while Lloyd got down to the business of becoming the second place winner in a national contest that included nearly 300 trucks from across the country. If they had won they would have donated half the prize money to the Food Bank of WNY. I suppose they were hoping that winning the love of an enitre nation might satisfy local policymakers.
Meanwhile, the team of brick and mortar business owners began working with a lawyer and independent citizens developed a Facebook group calling for the boycott of the restaurants they own and operate.
Last week, local blowhard Carl Paladino joined the fight against the food trucks by asking the board of Buffalo Place to renege the permits granted to the food trucks—the only permit they have which allows them to vend, just like a hot dog stand, from an immobile position downtown.
According to the Buffalo News, Paladino told the board, ‘“Allowing these vendors to park out front and put one of our tenants out of business is patently unfair,” said Paladino, citing Just Pizza and Charlie the Butcher in his Ellicott Square space. “It’s very, very unfair for this city to issue permits to these people to allow them to come downtown and compete with our tenancy ... that are paying huge taxes.”’
His sentiment was then echoed by Rev. Darius Pridgen, who happens to sit on the board of Buffalo Place in addition to being a member of the Common Council.
“This can’t happen,” says Cimino. “The permit I worked so hard to get from Buffalo Place is the only permit I have. These guys aren’t trying to develop fair legislation, they are trying to shut us down.”
Finally, the public has had enough. Yesterday morning an online poll was launched supporting the trucks, and in a single day over 1,300 people signed it. The numbers continue to grow. Several restaurant owners, chefs, and other small business people have written letters to the Common Council supporting the food trucks, and still more are expected to show up to the Common Council’s public meeting on the issue this Thursday at City Hall. (see below for update)
While all of these are good and powerful measures, it seems that many people are still concerned about the issues raised by the brick and mortars, and many of those issues have not been addressed in a public forum, so we are going to do our best to provide that for our readers here:
• Food trucks don’t pay property taxes.
Those who own buildings pay property taxes. Most of our local, independent restaurants don’t own the buildings that house their restaurants. They rent them. They pay property taxes indirectly through their monthly rent. Food trucks are no different. Food trucks pay rent to store their trucks, and also to the brick and mortar commissary where they store and make food to sell on their trucks.
• Food trucks will steal business from hardworking restaurant owners.
The proposed legislation before the Buffalo Common Council was not unlike the legislation used in cities that are bigger and smaller than Buffalo. It called for any permitted food truck to remain 100’ away from any open establishment serving prepared food and 500’ away from festivals or other large public gatherings wihtout a special one-time permit from the host of the event. This legislation would have applied to all public streets. In addition, as far as “hardworking” goes, I dare anyone to work in the back of a taco truck in August for a typical fourteen-hour shift and not give foodtruck owners and employees credit for being equally hardworking.
• Food trucks will drive brick and mortar restaurants out of business.
Wendy’s builds across the street from McDonald’s. Walmart builds across the street from Target. An increase in the volume of businesses in any one area typically increases the number of people who visit that area, which means more business for everyone. Do you really think that these major, national chains that spend decades studying how to genetically modify potatoes in order to create better French fries don’t have a firm grasp on the facts? While the food trucks may have captured the public’s attention in recent months, the trucks that aren’t cooking fabulous food are struggling. Lloyd’s success isn’t based on the fact that they are a food truck. It’s based on the fact that they currently serve really, really good tacos and burritos that trump, by a thousand miles, any taco or burrito currently being served by anyone else in WNY.
• Food trucks shouldn’t get a shortcut in terms of zoning, permits, and licensing.
One member of the brick and mortar opposition claimed that the food trucks were operating like it was the “wild west.” While that’s an arguable point, the reason why things got to this point is because the Common Council didn’t address these issues in a timely fashion. The trucks want legislation. They don’t want to deal with heated owners calling the police. Many ideas are in place for how to make this work. They include the required distance regulations mentioned above. They also include a special permit that costs a certain amount of money per year (let’s say $1,000). There is also tlak of limiting the total number of these permits available at any one time.
• Food trucks don’t offer “safe” food.
Food trucks actually undergo twice the health department inspections that a restaurant does. Not only is their truck thoroughly inspected, but they must also maintain an inspected brick and mortar commissary where their food is prepared and stored. Despite the fact that many of these trucks have adequate long-term refrigeration and storage for food on board, the Erie County Health Department insisted that all of the trucks have a lease with a kitchen—not an easy task in WNY, by the way—and they do.
• Food trucks create litter.
It wouldn’t be hard to ask the food trucks to provide receptacles for their trash, now would it.
Now that we’ve addressed many of the issues, let’s talk about some of the perks associated with food trucks.
Western New York—and the country—is in the middle of two major crises. The first is economic, and the second is connected to health and weight. Food trucks are an affordable way for an entrepreneur to begin a small business. They provide healthy food made from fresh, largely unprocessed ingredients to our strapped community. They go places (like downtown Buffalo) that fast food chains have fled or avoided due to the limited amount of traffic. There they serve fresh, hot food to area denizens at an affordable price.
They also add to the cultural fabric of our community. For a decade community activists have called for an increase in public art, murals, buskers, and other expressive ways in which to enliven our often-gray city. The hive of activity that occurs around a food truck is no different than that which occurs around the M&T Plaza series and other outdoor demonstrations of our unique WNY culture.
Finally, it must be said that we live in a country built on industry, free enterprise, and the spirit of competition. Asking the local government to remove competition from a specific industry is consummately un-American. If your food can be bested by a taco served from the back of a step van, you have to ask yourself if the success of your business is based on providing your customer with the best product at the best price, or if it was based on a lack of alternative choices. If it’s the latter, than perhaps you need to rethink your business plan.
Four thousand petitioners can't be wrong. By Thursday morning, the date of the Common Council meeting, four thousand people had signed the petition showing their support for the food trucks. In just four days the trucks had managed to rally tremendous support. The meeting was moved to the Common Council Chamber in order to accommodate the number of attendees. Over the course of the four days the petition has been live, each time a name was added to the list, every single Common Council member received an email. This, coupled with the number of people who attended the meeting, and the large volume of phone calls and letters each council member received, led Golombeck to begin the meeting with a call for a subcommittee to be assembled in order to determine fair legislation. He suggested that the committee be made up of food truck vendors and the brick and mortar group, both of which now have official names (and lawyers).
The legal representation for the WNY Food Truck Association took the stage first, paving the way for the day by reading a letter of support he had received from the owner of a brick and mortar restaurant.
One by one the food truck owners presented their case before the Council. Each food truck told their story and pled their case for fair legislation. The truck owners were calm and respectful, noting that they had followed a set of self-imposed rules since hitting the streets, despite the lack of proper legislation. A graduate of UB's Law School who had done research regarding food trucks and legislation across the U.S. was also asked to speak. He demonstrated that food trucks were good for a community's economy and also pointed out that the legislation presented to the council at the meeting in July had been more than adequate and fair and should have led to resolution.
After almost an hour long presentation, it was time for the attorney representing the Entrepreneurs for a Better Buffalo (a.k.a the brick and mortars) to speak. Much to everyone's surprise, he addressed none of the points made by the opposing side, but rather asked for fair legislation. None of his clients were introduced and no one was called to the microphone.
The council then opened the floor to those in attendance who had asked to speak. Out of all the speakers, many of the points we've discussed above were made. Several more pointed out that Buffalo has a reputation for slowing progress and requested that this not be the case in this instance. Still others told of their dream of owning a food truck but their unwillingness to put a truck on the road without legislation. A few people mentioned that they felt members of the community should also be asked to sit on the appointed committee.
Over the course of an hour or more, citizens made their case. In one instance, John Fusco, the owner of Zetti's Pizza & Pasta raised concerns about the lack of restrooms available to those who eat at food trucks, and also mentioned that he felt his business would be negatively effected by a truck being parked anywhere within the proposed 100' limit. Another gentleman who owns a fleet of 55 trucks that deliver prepared and packaged food to construction sites asked that any legislation take businesses like his into consideration.
It would have been nice to hear more from the opposing side, since so far, only the concerns of property taxes and unfair competition have been officially aired by any member of Entrepreneurs for a Better Buffalo.
Golombeck, the Common Council member who initiated legislation and led this meeting, again suggested that three food truck owners and three restaurants owners meet to hash out a set of fair practices. The members of this committee have not yet been announced. The meeting adjourned with an indication that the new committee would need to return its findings to the Council by November 1, 2011.