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Taco trucks and city regulations

Lisa Gray writes about the food truck craze in Houston, and the obstacles that these foodie entrepreneurs must overcome.

Food trucks can be a serious urban amenity, a quick way to bring life to a street, parking lot or underused park. But some of Houston’s rules seem hellbent on preventing such outbreaks of civility.

Consider, for instance, the weird sanitation rule that prevents mobile food vendors from operating within 100 feet of outdoor seating – never mind setting up their own tables, chairs and umbrellas. Nobody seems to know why sanitation officials would consider tables near a truck less sanitary than a restaurant’s outdoor seating or a park’s picnic area. But there you have it: a law that not only discourages one of the great pleasures of urban life, but actually encourages people to get back in their cars and eat while driving. That’s supposed to make us safer and healthier?

The Boys also complain that they can’t set up shop in either downtown or the Medical Center, the two pedestrian-dense places in Houston. City rules make it prohibitively expensive for food trucks to get a license to use propane tanks in either the Medical Center or downtown. Never mind that New York and Chicago haven’t had much trouble with exploding hot-dog vendors.

You’d think that Houston would be eager to bring food trucks to its neighborhood parks. As a slew of renewal projects have proven – think Market Square Park, Discovery Green, Hermann Park – food is a powerful people magnet, able to draw people to what might otherwise be a spooky, underused place. But yet another city rule prevents food trucks from parking on a street for more than an hour while they do business. For the Eatsie Boys, that’s a serious barrier: Before the trailer can roll, they have to spend 20 minutes bungee-cording all the loose stuff in the kitchen. And it’s not worth it if they can only stay in a spot for an hour.

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Instead, every day that they operate, they have to tow the trailer to a city-approved “commissary” – essentially, a big car wash – where they hose the truck down, then receive a green inspection sticker that says they’re good for that day. The process, including bungee-cording anything in the rolling kitchen that might fall, as well as the round-trip drive, takes about two hours out of their business day. It’d be way more efficient, Alex says, just to hook up water at their own site and wash the trailer down there.

As it happens, I recently attended a presentation by a lawyer from the Institute for Justice, which bills itself as “the nation’s only libertarian, civil liberties, public interest law firm”, on the subject of the city’s regulatory environment and its effect on entrepreneurs. You can see the booklet he handed out with the talk here. The subject of food trucks, in particular taco trucks, was covered in the lecture – that material starts on page 6 of the document. It should be noted that a number of these onerous regulations, in particular the daily trek to the city’s commissary, were imposed on the city by the Legislature, thanks to a bill passed by Rep. Dwayne Bohac at the request of then-Council Member Toni Lawrence. There was a lawsuit filed in 2007 after the legislation was enacted by some of the taco truck owners.

State Rep. Dwayne Bohac says he was protecting the public’s health when he co-authored two new state laws to tighten regulation of taco wagons in Houston and Harris County.

But more than 60 Hispanic owners of mobile taquerias have challenged the new state laws in federal court, contending they are more about racial intolerance than food safety. Their attorney says there has not been a single report of someone getting sick from eating at a taco wagon.

“Certain legislators don’t like these Hispanic-run businesses in their neighborhoods — they think they’re too low class,” said Houston attorney David Mestemaker, who is representing the taco truck owners suing the city, county and state over the new regulations.

The city ordinances that were required by Bohac’s law were allowed to go into effect, and as far as I know the litigation is still pending. I was thinking as I listened to the Institute for Justice fellow speak that there sure were a lot of food trucks popping up around town despite the regulatory muddle. You have to wonder how many more there might be without that 2007 law.

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7 Comments

  1. robert kane says:

    One of the things I ALWAYS think about when I see a taco truck… it’s an ALL cash business, how do they audit it for sales tax?

    I’ve never received any type of receipt, saw any register. They are not cheap either, costing as much as a sit down business now.

    If anyone knows anyone that ever ran an all cash business, they know how easy it is to cook the books.

    Secondly, I think “commissaries” are good…. it doesn’t have to be hours away as far as I know, I never looked into the Houston regulation but I wanted to have an ice cream truck in Florida before and as long as I had a commercial grade kitchen to wash everything that would’ve been ok. I had planned on an Ice Cream shop and having a few trucks, so they all could’ve returned to MY shop which would’ve satisfied the commissary rule.

    also, found this on the internet:

    most cities require a ‘commissary’ for a food truck as a place to clean and store goods as well as dispose of wastes etc. Plus you would need one to have access to a larger cooking operation than is available in the truck. More storage, i.e. walk in/freezer. I dont think you could run the type of operation I envision without one.

    I agree, Mobile food trucks can make an area look tacky… I think an occasional special event is ok, but to have one that is always there….blah……if it’s supposed to be mobile, then be mobile.

    If we want to compare to NYC, we should compare the process there…poke around this site and we’ll see they have a limit and a waiting list to get a permit (kind of like taxi medallions):

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/inspect/ispecial.shtml

  2. Ginger says:

    Wait until they get hold of the Austin way of doing food trucks and it’s hip and slightly haute cuisine, and mostly run by white people. Then you may see some changes to the regulations.

  3. Greg Wythe says:

    I think I see Ginger’s point. This happened to catch my eye during a recent trip to Austin. Much to my regret, we did not arrange for a lunch meeting there.

  4. Kenneth Fair says:

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything from the Institute for Justice. It’s another Koch front group.

  5. Robert – How do you audit any other cash business for sales tax? For what it’s worth, the newer operators, like the ones featured in Lisa Gray’s column, surely take credit cards.

    Ginger – That’s basically the trend in Houston now. Gourmet hamburgers, fusion cuisine – tacos, as it happens – cupcakes aplenty, etc etc etc. Not surprising to see the issue get some traction.

    Kenneth – Perhaps, but I found the presentation interesting anyway. And in the case of taco/food trucks, I tend to agree with it.

  6. robert kane says:

    Auditing a brick and mortar business is usually through the “z” tapes of a cash register. I guess I spend too much time in areas where the taco trucks just tell you how much it is and you pay, no receipt, just cash.

  7. […] when the city of San Antonio was preparing to loosen its regulations on mobile food vendors and last March when Lisa Gray wrote about the subject. One item that I don’t see on the wish list is the […]