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food trucks

Taco the vote

Now you’re talking.

MI FAMILIA VOTA is accustomed to registering voters in unusual places, such as the food court at the UH Student Center where we caught up with Maria Villenas last month. Villenas is Houston’s civic engagement lead for the national non-partisan organization, which encourages political participation, primarily among Latinos, and seeks to register potential voters wherever they can find them—especially right now, as the October 11 voter registration deadline looms.

Starting today, that list of unusual places for voter registration grows by eight: That’s how many local taco trucks have signed on with Mi Familia Vota as mobile registration booths. It’s an idea sparked by a comment from Latinos for Trump supporter Marco Gutierrez, who told MSNBC earlier this month: “My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”

In Houston, meanwhile, where we’ve lived comfortably and happily with taco trucks on every other corner for at least the last few decades, it occurred to one local designer that while taco trucks may be omnipresent here, voter registration booths aren’t. Texas had the second-lowest voter turnout in the nation in the March primaries, while Houston itself has long trended downward in voter turnout during elections of all kinds. Thomas Hull of design firm Rigsby-Hull decided to join forces with Mi Familia Vota in an effort to turn those numbers around.

“We’re also handing out information on where to vote,” Hull told Houston Public Media of the eight taco trucks who’ve signed up to participate. So if you’re one of the undecided voters who was swayed by last night’s debate, here’s your chance to grab a delicious lunch and register to make your voice heard. Head to one of these trucks below, and bring cash—for the tacos, that is; registering to vote is free, but you only have until October 11.

Click over for a map and list of locations. Voter registration overall is sharply up, but there’s no reason not to continue that. And everything goes better with tacos. KUHF and the Chron have more.

Food trucks arrive downtown

Welcome.

Houston’s foodie community rejoiced Friday as Mayor Annise Parker welcomed propane-fueled food trucks downtown after a years-long ban, but more plans to loosen the city’s mobile unit rules are not likely to meet the same fanfare at City Council in the coming months.

Parker bypassed council to remove the restriction on propane-fueled food trucks downtown, citing a fire marshal opinion that tanks weighing up to 60 pounds are safe.

“It may not seem like the most important issue the city could address,” said Parker, standing in front of a colorful food truck, The Modular, across from City Hall on Friday. “But believe me, if you invest in a food truck, you want to serve great food to Houstonians, this absolutely makes a difference.”

Two other industry changes on Parker’ food trucks agenda – letting the trucks use tables and chairs and removing 60-foot spacing requirements between mobile units – need to go through council members, whose opinions on food trucks vary by district.

[…]

Council Member Brenda Stardig has proved a particularly vocal critic, calling for more food truck inspectors.

“I’m not against food trucks,” Stardig said. “There are some really cool ones. But some of the ones that historically we’ve had in District A, they set up shop permanently. Until we have the ability to have more inspectors, less regulation and opening it to a broader market is a concern.”

Council Member Robert Gallegos also said he would like to ramp up enforcement before loosening the rules. Gallegos’ district runs from downtown to the East End.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” he said. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

See here for the background. CMs Stardig and Gallegos have valid concerns, and the city says they are working to address those concerns. It should be noted that the city has more food truck inspectors per capita (three for 800 trucks, or one for every 267) than it does restaurant inspectors (30 for 13,000, or one for every 433). I hope we can agree on what needs to be done to address the issues that have been raised so we can move forward on this.

And we (finally) circle back to food trucks

We’ve done HERO, we’ve done vehicles for hire, what other high profile issues are there out there? Oh yeah, food trucks. I’d almost forgotten they were still an agenda item, but they’re back and they should be getting a vote soon.

Proposed changes to three major ordinances could provide food trucks with new freedom. While the commissary requirement isn’t changing, the other three regulations will be going away if the Houston City Council approves recommendations developed over the last two years by a task force that includes representatives from various city departments, food trucks and the brick and mortar restaurant community, as represented by its lobbying group, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

[…]

Laura Spanjian, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, explains that the goal of removing the prohibition that prevents trucks from operating downtown and in the Texas Medical Center “is to create a level playing field for food trucks.” In debates two years ago, some council members expressed concerns about the safety of having trucks, which can carry up to 60-pound tanks of propane, operating in the Central Business District, but Spanjian says the Houston Fire Department is “very confident there is not a safety concern in these two areas. They have a very strong inspection routine.”

Spanjian also notes that the city’s increased density makes separating downtown and the Medical Center from other, similarly populated areas like Greenway Plaza and The Galleria somewhat illogical.

Removing the 60-foot spacing requirement between trucks is another change to the fire code that reflects confidence in the Fire Department’s inspection routine and spot checks of truck operations. Both of these changes are being made as part of larger updates to the fire code, which happens every three years. Spanjian expects them to come to a vote before Council early next year.

The final proposed change is an adjustment to the health code that removes the prohibition against trucks operating within 100 feet of tables and chairs. As this requirement is routinely ignored when trucks park near bars in Montrose, along Washington Ave and the Heights, it brings the regulations in line with standard practices. If all goes according to plan, Council will vote on the issue in mid-September.

Spanjian also notes that the 100 foot rule should never have been in the health code. “There’s no health issue with a food truck being near tables and chairs. It doesn’t belong in the health care requirements at all,” she says.

While the 100 foot regulation may have been an attempt to prevent food trucks from competing directly with brick and mortar restaurants, Spanjian thinks the time has come for the two to be on a more equal footing.

“We’re letting the market decide, which is a very Houstonian thing to do,” she says. “It should be up to the private property owners what they want to do on their private property.”

The last mention I had of this was in November, right after Mayor Parker’s re-election, in which she promised that there would be a vote on a food truck ordinance by the end of this year. Before that, the news is all from 2012. If the Greater Houston Restaurant Association really is on board, or at least not opposed, that should clear the way. This Chron story from yesterday’s Quality of Life committee meeting sheds a bit of light and also suggests what in retrospect is an obvious parallel.

“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.

“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”

[…]

Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.

“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.

I’m not the only one who hears an Uber/Lyft echo in all that, am I? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Anyway, if all goes well we should see a Council vote on this in September. I look forward to seeing it get resolved. Link via Swamplot, the Chron editorial board is still in favor, and the Houston Business Journal has more.

What’s on the agenda for Mayor Parker in her third term

Now that Mayor Parker has been safely re-elected, with a better-than-expected margin, what does she plan to do from here?

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A triumphant Parker on Tuesday lauded her “decisive” victory but quickly shifted her focus to the coming two years, listing her third-term priorities as jobs, economic development, rebuilding streets and drainage, and financial accountability.

“There are no quick fixes. We’re rebuilding Houston for the decades, and we’re doing it right,” she said. “My election is over, but the work is going to get much tougher. … The next two years starts tonight.”

Parker had said for weeks she expected to avoid a runoff, and lately has acted the part, saying Monday she intended immediately to place controversial items before the City Council.

An ordinance targeting wage theft should be on the Nov. 13 agenda, she said, with a measure restricting payday and auto title lenders shortly to follow. Both items were discussed by council committees earlier this year before disappearing in favor of bland agendas during the campaign.

The council also should vote on a controversial item rewriting regulations for food trucks before year’s end, Parker said.

She said she also wants to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to an item recently passed in San Antonio that prohibited bias against gay and transgender residents in city employment, contracting and appointments, and in housing and places of public accommodation.

Parker also has said she wants to expand curbside recycling service to every home in Houston, to finish an effort to reduce chronic homelessness, and to give Houston voters a chance to change the city’s term-limits structure, likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. She singled out homelessness and the Bayou Greenways initiative, a voter-approved effort to string trails along all the city’s bayous, Tuesday night.

Parker also has highlighted pending projects: the city is halfway through moving its crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent lab; voters’ narrow approval of a joint city-county inmate processing center on Tuesday will let the city shutter its two aging jails.

The mayor twice has failed to persuade the Texas Legislature to give her local negotiating authority with the city’s firefighter pension system; she will get another crack at it in 2015.

Another reform Parker said she wants to tackle is increasing water conservation in Houston, saying “we are one of the most profligate users of water of any city in Texas, and that has to change.”

A lot of this should be familiar. The wage theft ordinance was brought up in August to a skeptical Council committee, and the Mayor promised to bring it up on October 23. Payday lending is a to do items due to legislative inaction. The call for a more comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance was a recent addition that came in the wake of San Antonio passing its more muscular NDO. The crime lab and closure of the city jails are long-term projects that will move forward. It will be interesting to see where Council is on some of these, and it may be better for a couple of them to wait until the runoffs resolve themselves and bring them up next year. Finally, on the subject of water usage, there’s a lot we could do to affect that.

The one cautionary note I would strike is on term limits. You know how I feel about term limits, so I’m not going to go into that. My concern is that this necessarily means a change to the city charter, and that implies the possibility of a larger can of worms being opened. Which, maybe Mayor Parker would welcome, I don’t know. I personally have a hard time shaking the feeling that the goal of this exercise is to curtail the power of the Mayor one way or another – I have a hard time seeing us move to a City Manager form of government, but things like giving Council members the power to propose agenda items are in play. Which, again, may be something the Mayor wants to discuss, and even if it isn’t may be a good thing for the rest of us to talk about. I’ve said I’m open to the conversation, and I am. Doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the possible ways it could go.

One more thing:

Parker said Tuesday she would not be a candidate for any office in 2016.

That was made in the context of speculation that the Mayor’s current agenda for Council might presage a run for statewide office. I don’t know what the Mayor’s plans are for life post-Mayorship, but I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that of course she wouldn’t be a candidate for office in 2016. What office would she run for? The only statewide positions are Railroad Commissioner and judicial seats, and unless she wants to move out west and run against Steve Radack, the only county office that might fit would be Tax Assessor. The question to ask is whether she might be a candidate for office in 2018, and even I would have to admit that’s way too far off to really care about right now. Let’s see how these next two years go, and we’ll figure it out from there.

Food trucks going un-mobile

It’s a trend.

Matti Merrell and Rodney Perry first parked their Green Seed food truck on a Third Ward street in 2011. Within a year Food & Wine named it the No. 9 vegan and vegetarian restaurant in the U.S.

Last year, the pair opened on Almeda, just around the corner in the neighborhood south of Midtown. They keep the truck parked outside, but don’t use it. They run a standalone version of Green Seed instead.

Standing over a stove in a truck parked in front of a bar may not sound like a stylish life for a chef. But for some talented young entrepreneurs, a food truck is a stepping stone to having their own restaurant.

Other local food truck chefs who have made, or will soon make, the leap to brick and mortar include Fusion Taco, Good Dog, Bernie’s Burger Bus and Eatsie Boys.

[…]

The city’s myriad ethnic groups make the local food truck culture interesting, [Paul Galvani, an adjunct marketing professor at the University of Houston] said. The hundreds of taco trucks, for example, offer items from many Latin American regions.

“Any vibrant city has a very strong street food culture,” he said. “Houston is not quite there yet,” he said, but he sees a lot of excitement building around food trucks.

Many food truck chefs came out of culinary school during the recession and had trouble finding a job they liked, Galvani said.

I don’t really have a point to make, I just read the story to see if there were any updates on the MFU Houston movement. Judging from the lack of updates on that page, and the brief mention in this related story about Fusion Tacos opening a brick-and-mortar location downtown, I’d say the answer is “not a whole lot”. Still, the idea remains on Mayor Parker’s to do list, and if you’ve been listening to my interviews you know I’ve been asking all the Council candidates about it. But other than that, right now there’s not much to report.

Uber

Mark me in favor of this.

A smartphone app could be the subject of the year’s most spirited regulatory battle at City Hall, as lobbyists line up for a fight that pits taxicab companies against a car-service technology company called Uber.

The firm’s entry into more than 20 U.S. cities has sparked lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters from taxi owners concerned for their livelihoods and regulators accusing the firm of skirting the law. Uber says it is merely a broker between riders and drivers, using a smartphone app to make getting a ride more efficient.

Uber must seek a change in ordinance for its business model to work in Houston, said Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Company representatives first met with city officials in May; a social media marketing push launched in recent days.

The service the San Francisco-based startup wants to offer in Houston is UberBLACK, which would allow riders to hail town cars – also known as black cars or sedans – using the Uber app, alerting the nearest participating driver to respond. The fare is based on speed and distance using each smartphone’s GPS technology, with the fare charged automatically to the customer’s credit card.

Drivers who want to participate are given smartphones with the Uber app installed, said company spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian, and must pass a background check and comply with all city licensing rules. Drivers continue to work for their limousine company or themselves; they do not work for Uber.

Houston is the last major U.S. city in which Uber does not operate, largely because of the city’s “draconian” regulations, Kalanick said, calling the city’s rules typical of those negotiated by taxi companies to protect themselves at the expense of riders.

“I don’t think taxis in Houston are as readily available as other cities, and (I’d like) to have something like this where you can call, it’s on-demand, they’re there, they’re always very reliable, very respectful,” said Houstonian Natalie Petratis, who uses Uber when visiting her native Chicago.

Uber wants to drop the minimum fare for a sedan ride in Houston from $70 to $5.50; wants regulations changed to enable on-demand service, as opposed to rides arranged at least 30 minutes in advance; and wants to delete the four-car minimum required for new limo and sedan companies, among other tweaks.

This is a no-brainer to me. Regulations that inflate prices while limiting choices are regulations in need of overhaul. Christopher Newport of the city’s Administrative and Regulatory Affairs department correctly noted the parallels between Uber and things like pedicabs, REV Houston, and the Washington Wave. To that list, I’d also add food trucks and their ongoing fight to be allowed to operate downtown.

I have no issue with the cab companies working to protect their interests, and I’m sure Uber will be disruptive to them, but I see no reason to stifle this kind of innovation. I presume cabs continue to exist in the cities where Uber already operates. As such, I see no need to fear it operating here. Uber sent me some information about what has gone on so far and what they’re specifically seeking to change. Here’s the letter from Administrative and Regulatory Affairs that outlines the relevant ordinances; Uber’s response to ARA’s letter; and Uber’s briefing statement about what it does and where it does it. If all that doesn’t have you convinced, note that in addition to using Uber to arrange a ride, you can also use Uber to request an ice cream truck on demand. Need I say more? Hair Balls was on this as well.

Hall makes his announcement

Game on.

Ben Hall

Former Houston City Attorney Ben Hall formally launched his mayoral campaign against incumbent Annise Parker Wednesday night, decrying the burden of taxes and fees he said are driving city residents to the suburbs, and saying Houston’s mayor must have a grander vision.

Parker, also on Wednesday, accepted the endorsement of the Houston Police Officers Union and a $10,000 check from its political action committee, as Hall welcomed the endorsement of the African American Police Officers League.

Hall, who served as city attorney from 1992 to 1994, emphasized the need to incentivize business growth, particularly from international markets. He derided Parker’s focus on issues such as red light cameras and a proposal to allow food trucks downtown, saying, “This city is grander and bigger than those kind of trivial items.”

“A mayor must do more than simply balance a budget,” he said. “A mayor must do more than simply dream of ways to tax and penalize residents. We need more than just a manager, we need a leader. And we need more than just a leader, we need a leader with vision, someone who sees a way out of this morass. You can continue the strangulation hold on the taxpayers and residents, or we can choose a different way forward … by opening up the city to the international marketplace.”

My reaction to this is pretty much what it’s been all along, which is to say that so far there’s no real suggestion of what a Mayor Ben Hall would be like, and in what way he would be different than Mayor Annise Parker other than simply not being her. There’s precious little in this story to say what Hall’s vision is or how he would lead. That may of course be a function of limited story space in the Chronicle, but neither Hall’s campaign webpage nor his campaign Facebook page sheds any light on this; in particular, neither contains a copy of his prepared remarks or a video of what he said. The campaign agenda page is almost pitifully skimpy. It’s early days and I don’t expect detailed position papers just yet, but some basic statement of what Hall would do would be nice. Here’s what he says about transportation, for example:

Houston’s transportation issues can only be fully addressed through a combination of transit options. Automotive travel is here to stay, but we must promote shared transit ridership in as many ways as possible. High-occupancy vehicle lanes, bus travel and rail are but a few of the options. Shared transit ridership will not only cut down on traffic congestion, but also assist with improving air quality.

Did he favor or oppose the Metro referendum? Does he think Metro has been doing a good job? Will he pursue more funding sources to help boost shared transit ridership? You get the idea. What is his vision for transit? I don’t think I’m asking for too much here.

As for what Hall did say, I’m curious why he singled out “a proposal to allow food trucks downtown” as a trivial item. Does that mean he would oppose allowing food trucks downtown? There is a grassroots effort to make this happen, being led by small business owners who want the city to loosen or undo regulations that prevent them from expanding their businesses into downtown. It’s not something Mayor Parker picked out of the blue. There is a somewhat disingenuous case against allowing food trucks downtown, though of course we don’t know yet if Hall buys into that or if he has some other rationale. One hopes at least that terrorists and drugs don’t figure into his reasoning. Of all the things Hall could have chosen to criticize Parker about, this one just puzzles me. Among other things, it’s far from clear that being anti-downtown-food-truck is a winner. I mean, the MFU Houston Facebook page currently has more likes than Hall’s campaign webpage.

As for red light cameras, obviously this is fair game for criticism of the Mayor. It’s just that it feels dated. The red light camera referendum was in 2010. The cameras are all gone. The only question at this point is whether the city will be able to pay off the settlement with money collected from fines or if it will have to dip into general revenue. Again, there’s certainly fodder for criticism here, but isn’t having a vision about looking forward?

Finally, and maybe this is just my own personal axe to grind, Ben Hall himself is not a resident and taxpayer in the city of Houston. Yes, he is now registered to vote here, but everyone knows the “residence” one lists for voter registration purposes is just a polite fiction. The house Ben Hall has lived in for the past 20 or so years is in Piney Point. He doesn’t pay city of Houston property taxes. Maybe no one else cares about this, but it bugs me. You want to have a say in the governance of our city, you need to be an actual resident of our city. Sorry, but I’m not going to let this go any time soon.

Anyway. Other than the food truck thing, Hall hasn’t added much to his own Mayoral vision since his first announcement in January, which I discussed here. When he has more to say, I’ll have more to say about what he says. Campos, Greg, and Texpatriate have more.

UPDATE: PDiddie adds on.

The case against the food trucks

Reggie Coachman, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, tries to make a case against giving food trucks freer rein downtown.

Currently there are more than 939 active mobile units permitted in the city of Houston, including 774 trucks and trailers equipped with kitchens. The Mobile Food Unit Coalition primarily represents a small number (less than 50) of those trucks. These trucks are chef-driven, entrepreneurial, comply with city codes and primarily serve the inner-loop community.

The city of Houston has two inspectors and one supervisor for these 939 units. Many of these trucks operate around the clock or during off hours, while the inspectors primarily work normal business hours. With only two inspectors, it is not possible for the city to enforce the existing regulations, much less loosened regulations.

If all food trucks complied with regulations, there would not be as much concern. However, neighborhoods across the 656 square miles of the city have had many problems with food trucks. Some of the trucks rarely move. Some have been witnessed disposing of their grease in city storm sewers. They have patrons that loiter nearby and engage in inappropriate behavior late into the night. Regulations require that a truck be moved and visit a commissary at least once during a 24-hour period. The current regulations were strengthened in recent years to better manage the problems created by quasi-permanent food trucks.

Mobile food units are by the very definition mobile businesses. In most cities, they are banned from having tables and chairs. They serve walk-up customers who are taking their food elsewhere to eat. To allow these vehicles to add tables and chairs in front of their trucks is allowing them to essentially operate a restaurant without complying with full standards required of restaurateurs or paying the accompanying taxes. Again, we do not believe that this is an issue with the proponents of these changes, but we already have serious issues with trucks operating in the parking lots of existing brick-and-mortar restaurants outside of Loop 610.

And to that point, let’s consider the impact to existing businesses. The Chronicle editorial claims that Houston is a foodie city. We agree. It is the existing restaurants that have brought us to this point. Restaurateurs who are strong entrepreneurs, many who started in small shops or as busboys for someone else and then built their own unique spaces, have helped elevate Houston to a food destination. These restaurants pay significant property taxes to the city. In a brick-and-mortar restaurant, sales taxes are tightly regulated and regularly submitted to the state. They hire many workers and add jobs to the economy.

In other words, it all boils down to benighted self-interest. We’ve all got bills to pay, and we’d all like to go about our business without more interference than necessary. I get that, and I don’t hold it against anyone, but that generally doesn’t make for a compelling argument. As Katharine Shilcutt documented at Tuesday’s council meeting where MFU Houston encountered resistance from various Council members and the GHRA, there are actually more inspectors per food truck than there are inspectors per restaurant, and as anyone who has ever watched the local news in this town well knows, brick-and-mortar restaurants have cleanliness issues sometimes, too. All this would be excusable, but then I read this:

New York City, which was mentioned in the editorial, is actually moving food trucks out of the city.

That piqued my curiosity, so I did a little Googling. I found the NYC Food Truck Association, and on their FAQ page, I found this:

Q – Why do NYC food trucks need advocates?
A – Running a food truck in NYC right now is very challenging. The current regulations make it very hard to find parking to vend and to hire staff quickly enough to keep up with seasonal demand. There have been a number of articles documenting these challenges:
Food Trucks Shooed From Midtown, New York Times
The rise and stall of food trucks, Crain’s NY
The NYCFTA is working with the Administration, City Agencies, City Council, Business Improvement Districts, and communities throughout New York City in order to help reinvent food truck vending in a way that is beneficial to the City, food truck entrepreneurs, and New Yorkers.

The key bit in that NYT story about why food trucks are now being ticketed by the cops is as follows:

David Weber, president of the New York City Food Truck Association, which represents 24 vendors, said the police activity is a result of a May 24 ruling by Justice Geoffrey D. Wright in New York State Supreme Court (*). The decision reinforced a city Transportation Department regulation, believed to date from the 1950s, stating that no “vendor, hawker or huckster shall park a vehicle at a metered parking space” to offer “merchandise for sale from the vehicle.”

“Until now this law was very inconsistently enforced,” Mr. Weber said, “but now Judge Wright’s decision is trickling down to the precincts.”

In other words, the change in attitude towards food trucks in New York was not the result of a deliberate policy decision made by Mayor Bloomberg and/or New York’s City Council, but the sudden application of an obscure old city ordinance. Characterizing this as the city “moving the trucks out” – itself a falsehood, as trucks have recently established a presence near downtown – is a total distortion, and makes me much less inclined to take anything the GHRA says on the issue seriously. If there is a case to be made against the food trucks, let’s make it honestly, OK? CultureMap has more from the Council meeting.

One more thing: MFU Houston is asking for access to the Medical Center as well as downtown. Coachman’s piece mentions the Medical Center in passing, but focuses on downtown. Whatever the argument for keeping the current regulations on food trucks for downtown, I don’t see how they apply for the Medical Center, because there are no brick-and-mortar restaurants there. There’s hardly anyplace to eat in the Medical Center. I don’t know where the trucks would park in the Medical Center if allowed there, but their presence is desperately needed.

(*) – In New York, the Supreme Court is more or less the equivalent of a District Court in Texas. The top court in NY is the Appellate Court. My dad was a Supreme Court Justice in NY, so I know these things.

MFU Houston encounters some resistance

No one ever said updating Houston’s food truck ordinances would be easy.

On Tuesday, more than 50 mobile food truck owners and supporters showed up at a council committee hearing to push for changes to the city’s mobile food unit ordinance, saying it would promote economic growth and improve vitality downtown.

“The way the ordinance is right now, it inhibits our growth and our survival,” said food truck vendor Joe Phillip, a representative of Mobile Food Unit Houston Collaborative. “It limits where and how we can sell. Other states and cities have vibrant food truck communities.”

The proposal would lift a ban on mobile food trucks with propane stoves or grills operating in downtown, eliminate the mandatory 60 feet of spacing between each truck, and enable truck vendors to provide seating.

Several council members expressed concern about propane use in the downtown area and the impact mobile food trucks would have on existing restaurants.

Councilman Andrew Burks Jr. opposed the changes, saying he said he has a problem with having multiple trucks lined up along downtown streets, a unsightly scene he has witnessed in other big cities.

Downtown parking is limited, and the close proximity of several trucks could be unsafe, he said.

“There is a danger here,” Burks said. “I don’t like this idea.”

[…]

Members of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, however, see the changes as a move toward deregulation of the food truck industry.

“Very few people in our industry, especially those who are members in our association, see this as something that’s going to really impact business downtown on a positive level,” said association past president Michael Shine.

“They see it, theoretically, as just splitting up a small pie. Members of the association don’t want this happening.”

See here for the background. I don’t believe the downtown food service business is zero-sum – if it were, I’d expect the GHRA to oppose the opening of any new brick-and-mortar eatery downtown as well, on the same grounds – but I do believe that opposition from groups like the GHRA is the main obstacle to be overcome. Ultimately, what’s going to matter is what Mayor Parker thinks about this, and she’s still in wait-and-see mode right now. If you feel strongly about this issue, now would be a good time to let the Mayor and your Council members know.

MFU Houston

From the inbox:

The Houston Mobile Food Unit (MFU) Collective will present City Council Members with stakeholder-driven Ordinance changes in September, which will further promote business growth and entrepreneurship in Houston.

The proposed Ordinance changes will eliminate the 60-foot distance between Mobile Food Units; allow 1 propane (LP) permit to cover multiple locations; provide access to existing seating areas and provide limited seating of their own; lift the LP ban within the District of Limitations, opening up the downtown area for service.

“Currently, propane use is restricted in Houston’s central business district, which limits most mobile food units from operating in the area. MFUs attract crowds and bring activity to the areas they occupy; the proposed Ordinance provides a unique opportunity to revitalize and reenergize spaces that could benefit from increased activity,” said Joanna Torok, co-owner of Oh my! Pocket Pies.

You can read the full press release here. The specifics of what they want are on their webpage.

Eliminate 60-foot distance between trucks.
Requires change to Fire Code, Section 10.11.12 and amendment to City Ordinance No. 2006-826

One Liquid Propane (LP) permit to cover multiple locations.
Requires change to Fire Code, Section 10.10.2

Ability to park next to existing seating.
Requires change to Mobile Food Health Code

Allow units to provide limited seating of their own, up to 3 tables and 6 chairs.
Requires change to Mobile Food Health Code

Lift the current LP restrictions in the District of Limitations 1:
Allow up to 40lb. LP tank + private property access. Requires changes to LSB standard 10, section 10.3.1

We’ve heard about these ideas before, in November 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 requirement that vendors have to bring their trailers to a city-approved “commissary” on a daily basis to be hosed down and inspected. I don’t know if that’s because this has already been changed or if the MFU Houston folks consider these other items to be higher priorities. In any event, I support this effort and wish them the best of luck. See here for further information about MFU Houston, see their Facebook page for ways to get involved, and see CultureMap and Houston Politics for more.

UPDATE: The Chron gets on board with this.

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.

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.