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Food Truck Laws Revisited and Contested - UPDATED

Josh Flanigan

Last year Spree spent a fair amount of time keeping readers abreast of the issues surrounding food truck legislation in Buffalo. Ultimately a law was passed, allowing food trucks to operate in the city (not any of its surrounding suburbs) for a fee of $1000 a year, as long as food truck owners complied with specific guidelines, like finding room to tote garbage cans along with them to each stop, and the most hotly contested rule, which required trucks to carry a measuring wheel and open for business no closer than 100' from the front door a food-based business. The Common Council determined that this temporary legislation would be in place for one year with a "sunset clause" requiring revisitation of the law within at the end of that time.

Before we move too much farther along, it should be noted that this legislation did not and does not cover the "special designated vending area” which encompasses Main St. south of the 500 block, many of its surrounding streets, and some of Canalside. This area is maintained by Buffalo Place and, while all of its vending policies are upheld by the Common Council and all of the special vending fees paid by this district's vendors are paid directly to City Hall, the actual implementation of the policies and the approval of vendors are curiously handled by the non-profit, Buffalo Place. In order to vend in that area, trucks and hot dog cart vendors are assessed a $9.80 per square foot fee for a designated, immobile "spot" on Buffalo's Place's vending map. To vend in this area, hot dog carts pay approximately $350 a year and food trucks are assessed an annual fee of nearly $1400. There are dozens of other fees paid by trucks all year long, to vend at a special events, etc., but these fees remain the largest.

After a year, when the food truck legislation hit the docket for revisitation earlier this month, the business owners working under the title of WNY Food Truck Association, along with their attorney, were determined to ask the city to reconsider the annual $1000 fee. Not a single citation had been issued to a single truck owner for rule violation since the legislation had been enacted, and according to Joel Golombeck, the council member who had originally proposed the legislation, a few complaints had been called in over the year, but almost all of them had been unfounded. This effort from the WNY Food Truck Association would not include the opportunity to discuss the legislation and implementation of the $1400 Buffalo Place fee, which many consider outlandish, because even though that fee was legislated by the Common Council and is collected by the City of Buffalo, no one on the Council seems willing oe able to take responsibility for its existence in any capacity which could lead to reconsideration of the current policy. Oh what a mess this city truly is once you begin to ask questions about the layers of government which burden it so.

Earlier this month, with the city’s legislation on the docket, dozens of truck owners and their supporters crowded council chambers asking that food trucks be assessed a smaller annual fee, in light of its excessive size compared to other Buffalo-regulated fees and those fees charged to food trucks in other cities around the country. Only one man brought forth an open complaint about the trucks, asking that, among other things, the trucks be required to maintain a 200’ distance from the boundary of any brick and mortar selling food unless the truck owner had written permission from the brick and mortar’s business owner. This lone voice belonged to Tucker Curtin (who in the interest of full disclosure I must tell you I have done work for, written about, and consider a friend.) Tucker owns several area restaurants, including The Steer and Lake Effect Diner in University Heights, Woody’s Taqueria, a seasonal venture on Woodlawn Beach, and Dug’s Dive, the Outer Harbor's sole restaurant.

Curtin is considered by many to be a pioneer and has been in the business for several decades. He fought publicly for his right to operate Dug’s Dive year round and has worked diligently to incorporate scratch cooking using locally sourced ingredients in the “casual” sector of the restaurant industry, a refreshing change from his counterparts who typically opt for cheap ingredients and pre-cooked, frozen food. Curtin, a leader in the business association that encompasses University Heights, had previously experienced several run-ins with the food truck Knight Slider, who he felt had violated rules and behaved in an unprofessional manner on several occasions, causing his business damage. It should be noted, for the record, that Knight Slider is not a member of the WNY Food Truck Association. It is also clear that when the police were called to measure the proximity of Knight Slider to The Steer, Knight Slider was found to be following the prescribed 100’ law.

After this incident, Curtin claims that several (if not all) of the business owners in his area who operate food-based businesses had come to him and asked him to do something about what they perceived to be unfair legislation. Based on Curtin’s experiences, he agreed to champion the cause, telling the Council at the meeting in early March that he supported the food trucks, but felt they needed to be more strictly regulated. Changing the law from 100’ to 200’ feet was his biggest point of contention, but in a phone call with him the night before the Council meeting he discussed a variety of points, including that each truck’s appearance be approved by the Planning Board, that the measuring wheels used by trucks be evaluated for their “truthiness” by the Department of Weights and Measures, and that all employees be required to take special food handling courses and undergo a criminal background check.

Being the only naysayer in the Council Chambers, it appeared that Curtin had little support for his concerns. The Council didn’t address him or the issues he aired directly, and it was stated openly that the bulk of the Council had no major concerns over the trucks and would consider lowering the annual $1000 fee. The meeting was adjourned and everyone went home, expecting the Council to deliver news of any changes to the legislation within a week or so. But over the course of the last few weeks, things have changed. Curtin now has a lawyer and has drawn up proposed food truck legislation that he considers fair. According to him, he is representing a variety of brick and mortar establishments who do not want to come out against the trucks (or for stricter legislation) publicly because of the social media backlash the opposing brick and mortars from the last round of legislation claim to have undergone.

Here is a pdf of Curtin’s proposed legislation. At first glance, it calls for the 100’ measure to be taken not from the front door of an establishment, but instead from the  “nearest edge of any private property comprised of commercial and residential dwellings,” that food trucks not be allowed to operate within 100' of ANY private property, open or not, that each food truck “carry on the vehicle a GPS Transmitter which will permit government agencies to locate the [food truck] for the purpose of conducting an inspection or assuring compliance with relevant regulations,”  that no truck be permitted to operate “within 100 feet of another mobile vehicle or any hot dog vendor,” and that each food truck obtain “a peddlers permit ... for each employee.”

I myself have long been a proponent of the food trucks, as I cannot imagine any city in our economic condition choosing to make it harder or more expensive for young, hardworking people to start and grow a thriving business. The trucks have gone an entire year without a citation, and have nearly doubled in number in the last eighteen months or so, not including the new trucks planning to open for operation this spring.

Many have stated that the brick and mortar restaurants should offer better food and an improved experience if they want to compete with the trucks, rather than relying on the City to legislate competition. Still others have pointed out that the complaints on behalf of brick and mortar owners that trucks don’t pay taxes or invest in their neighborhood are bogus. Finally, brick and mortars have stated that food trucks have it somehow easier because they can move around, “skimming” business off of areas during peak times, but not being there when times are tough.

There are other issues here, too, including the anti-Constitutional stance that competition should be regulated, and the question of how food trucks—and any mobile business—including Pine Hill, the new mobile shoe boutique, etc.—can function in a county made up of dozens of townships and cities, each requiring its own set of rules, fees, and implementation processes.

All of this is a lot to swallow, especially if you haven’t been following along. Today at 2pm, in Council Chambers, Curtin will be heard, as will the council for the WNY Food Truck Association, and those who show up to support each side. If you have any opinion, the time to speak is now. We simply cannot continue to revisit this law every year and the people—both business owners and the general public—must be heard. Contact your Council Member today via phone or email to be sure they understand how you want to be represented. Better yet, make it down to City Hall at 2pm.


UPDATE: A throng of residents and business owners crowded council chambers in support of the food trucks at the Common Concil meeting held yesterday, March 26. After hearing from them, and from the sole proprieter asking for stricter regulation, Tucker Curtin, the Council held a special session and voted to reduce mobile food truck fees to $800 for the first year and $500 a year for renewal.

Curtin maintains that he will continue to fight for further legislation. Meanwhile, the WNY Food Truck Association is seeking to lower the fees charged by the city to vend in the special vending district maintained by Buffalo Place and to move the discussion to the county level, thereby circumventing the need to argue their right to conduct business in every town and city located within Erie and Niagara County.

While Curtin says his efforts are backed by a variety of unnamed business owners, it is unfortunate that they did not come forward with him. He and his businesses are now being tried in a public forum, as one can easily observe in the comment strings running on the websites of The Buffalo News, BuffaloRising.com, and Artvoice.com.

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