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Food trucks

The city of San Antonio is preparing to overhaul its regulations of food trucks.

In San Antonio, strict mobile food vending laws make it difficult for food trucks to flourish. Acknowledging the need for change, officials are jump-starting a process to get more moveable feasts on the road.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has ordered a review of existing ordinances and wants staff to develop recommendations for the City Council, a plan Castro embraces.

“San Antonio’s probably been a bit too traditional with respect to food vendors, and other cities have been more creative,” Castro said. “But that will certainly change. The city will review the policy on food vendors. They’ve played a role in a number of cities in enlivening downtown, and they can play that role for San Antonio.”

At the leased Southtown lot, the Newmans’ park would have featured about five trucks hawking the likes of $8 Japanese beef sliders and $5 french fries rendered in duck fat.

But the plan was snagged by a city law that prohibits food trucks parked on commercial property from vending within 300 feet of a restaurant without written, notarized permission from the restaurant. And the owner of any restaurant within that range can change his or her mind at any time.

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Inspired by a fear of ice cream vendors, one law requires mobile food vendors to undergo an FBI background check that can take six weeks to complete. Another prohibits vendors from setting out tables or chairs and playing music.

A fear of ice cream vendors? I know their jingles can drive you a little crazy, but seriously? I’m hard pressed to see the public policy rationale in these regulations. It’s no mystery why San Antonio lags behind here. The case for throwing out a lot of these silly rules is clear – nobody would ever argue that restaurants must be more than 300 feet away from each other, or that their employees must undergo FBI background checks – but any time an industry that has benefited from such anti-competitive regulations sees them come under assault, it tends to push back. It’s not clear yet how that will play out in the River City.

Aware of the city’s shifting stance, officials with the San Antonio Restaurant Association are striking a cautious tone.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” said Yolanda Arellano, executive director of the association. “We don’t want to deny someone from being an entrepreneur. And restaurateurs are the epitome of the American dream. But at the same time you’ve got to be fair. There’s an investment in that mortar, in that brick. And you want it to be safe, too.”

As change stirs, opponents will have to contend with a city looking to the future.

“I hear that there are concerns from existing restaurants,” Sculley said. “But a rising tide lifts all ships.”

And not to put too fine a point on it, consumers will be much better served by a looser market, just as we all would be better served by getting rid of the byzantine regulatory structure around the beer and wine industries. Matt Yglesias has often written that unaccountable local regulations and licensing requirements are the sort of thing that libertarians who often go tilting at federal windmills should spend more time on, and that there’s a lot there for progressives to work with them. I see a lot of merit in this viewpoint.

And how do things look in Houston?

As general counsel of the Texas Restaurant Association, Glen Garey works in downtown Austin. He says the environment has inspired little hostility among food trucks and restaurants.

“There was a great deal of tension when the concept first started to balloon,” Garey said. “I think a lot of that kind of dissipated.”

He added that Houston has seen a different outcome.

An influx of food trucks there led to a health-code crackdown that severely restricts their operations. Trucks with propane can’t go downtown, and no food trucks can park on a street for more than an hour or sell food within 100 feet of any outdoor seating, said Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston’s sustainability director.

She said Houston also is planning to lift restrictions to allow food trucks downtown.

And indeed, a little googling around led me to the August Greater Houston Restaurant Association newsletter, which contains the following:

As you know, the food truck industry is growing rapidly in the Houston area. In addition to the multitude of taco trucks that have long been a part of our community, we are now experiencing “chef-driven” trucks who are rapidly expanding in numbers.

The newer trucks have indicated that current regulations are restraining their ability to conduct business. As a result, the Mayor appointed a Stakeholder committee to discuss their issues and concerns. We have been a part of the task force and all of the many meetings that have been held.

Issues surrounding the mobile food truck business include distance between trucks that are using propane, allowing them to operate in the central business district, allowing trucks to have tables and chairs within 100′ of your restaurant, and more.

We’ll see how that goes.

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