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Greater Houston Restaurant Association

Would you like to sit in armed or unarmed?

From Houstonia:

Imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon. You stop into Whataburger to pick up lunch with your kids in tow, the only thing on your mind remembering which kid doesn’t want ketchup on his burger, which kid only wants ketchup on his burger, and whether you want to add jalapenõs to your own. You place your order and are pulling out your wallet to pay when a man walks in with a Sig Sauer strapped to his belt. He’s not in any kind of uniform; he’s not wearing a badge. He’s just a guy with his gun, and you’re just a guy with his kids. Are you okay with this scenario? Maybe so. Or maybe you can’t understand why a guy would need to bring his gun into a fast-food restaurant, and you decide to leave without your burgers.

Whataburger has long bet that a good portion of its customers belong to the latter group, hence its company-wide policy against open carry, which has been legal for years in other states where the chain operates, from Arizona to Arkansas. In advance of the new statewide law that goes into effect in Texas this January 1—the much-discussed House Bill 910 that makes Texas the 45th state to allow residents to openly carry and display their handguns—the Corpus Christi–based company recently reiterated that policy.

[…]

The thing is, there’s still a great deal of confusion surrounding the impending changes, as business associations large and small, reluctant to enter the quagmire of gun control politics, have been slow to provide guidance to private entities that may want to ban open carry. (The Greater Houston Restaurant Association didn’t even return Houstonia’s requests for comment.) As a result, getting those signs up in the first place is proving tougher than expected.

And in fact, rules for the necessary signage are complicated. “Business owners that want to ban guns from their property must post a new sign that adheres to strict wording, colors and text size,” says Terry McBurney, president of the Greater Montgomery County Restaurant Association, one of the few restaurant associations to provide assistance in advance of the new gun laws. Those colors, the Texas Department of Public Safety mandates, must be contrasting. The lettering must be block, and at least one-inch high, for maximum legibility, with the notice in both English and Spanish, posted “conspicuously” at the entrance to the business itself. Any sign that isn’t absolutely perfect, down to the letter, will be null and void.

I would note that State Rep. Diego Bernal of San Antonio has taken it upon himself to help businesses who want to opt out on open carry by printing signs that conform to all of the mandated requirements, which he is providing free of charge. Perhaps one or more of our local legislators could follow that example – I’m sure plenty of businesses would appreciate it. Regardless, I wonder how long it will take before some establishments use open carry as a marketing tool, catering to whatever side they think represents a bigger opportunity for them. I feel reasonably confident saying that there will be more than a few establishments in my neighborhood that feature these signs, and that more than a few of them will not be shy about advertising themselves as such. Should be fascinating to watch.

On a tangential matter:

During a panel [recently] addressing Texas’s new open-carry law, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, and City Attorney Donna Edmunson encouraged citizens to ask as many questions as possible.

Mostly, they asked McClelland and Anderson to consider a myriad of hypothetical situations.

For example, many asked, what if you’re just sitting on a bench at a park with your gun in your holster, and some concerned “mad mom” calls the police on you because she and her kids are alarmed by the very presence of your gun? Are the police really going to detain you and ask that you show your CHL even though you’re just sitting on the bench eating a ham sandwich? Isn’t that a bit invasive?

The resounding answer from McClelland and Anderson, to all of the above types of questions, was basically this: we understand your concerns, but you’re just going to have to deal with it.

Chances are, they explained, you’re going to come across a CHL holder openly carrying his or her gun inside of a Walmart, a Taco Bell, a JCPenny (not a Whataburger, which already said it’s not going to allow guns inside). And chances are, for CHL holders, a police officer is going to ask you to show your license once someone’s kids get scared and they call 911, and you’ll just have to comply, because that’s the law—even if you’re just sitting on a bench eating a sandwich.

This is going to be so much fun, isn’t it? There are already plenty of disagreements about what this law means and what if any restrictions can be legally enforced in various places. I suspect the courts are going to be very busy next year, and the Lege will be back to revisit this in 2017.

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.

Endorsement watch: SEIU and HAR

This came in on Thursday:

SEIU (Service Employees International Union) Texas, including janitors who clean office buildings, housekeeping workers at GRB and food service workers, have endorsed Mayor Annise Parker for re-election. Houston members have also launched an effort to outreach to Latino and African American voters in their neighborhoods. Mayor Parker’s commitment to creating quality family-sustaining jobs makes her the best candidate for Houston’s working families.

“We are one of the most diverse cities in the nation and that makes us stronger. Mayor Parker understands this, that’s why she’s fought to build a city economy that works for everyone. When my fellow janitors and I went on strike last summer, her leadership helped bring about a resolution that is helping to build a path out poverty for thousands of Houston’s families, including my own,” said Houston janitor and SEIU Texas member Yesenia Romero.

In her first two terms, Mayor Parker advanced her mission to make Houston a great place to raise a family by supporting janitors’ efforts to raise wages, creating fair standards for employees who provide city services and holding irresponsible businesses accountable.

“I am proud to stand with Houston’s janitors, housekeeping and food service workers as we join together to make our city a better place to live for all Houstonians,” said Mayor Parker. “Working families helped lift Houston out of the recession – and together, we’re continuing to build a future for Houston’s children with more good jobs, safer neighborhoods and stronger schools. Thank you, SEIU, for your endorsement and support.”

During a press conference attended by Mayor Parker, members committed to turn their support into action in their communities. In the coming weeks, volunteers will generate support from neighbors, family members and fellow members to join Mayor Parker’s mission to build an economy that works for all.

SEIU endorsed a full slate of candidates, and you can see that reflected on my 2013 Election page. I have a continuation of my rant about how hard it is to get this information from some endorsing organizations to make in a bit, but first here’s the slate from the Houston Association of Realtors that I’ve been waiting for. From the press release:

— The Houston Association of REALTORS announced its decision to support the following candidates in the Tuesday, November 5 City of Houston Elections:

Mayor – Annise Parker*

District A – Helena Brown*

District B – Jerry Davis*

District C – Ellen Cohen*

District D – Dwight Boykins

District E – Dave Martin*

District F – Al Hoang*

District G – Oliver Pennington*

District H – Ed Gonzalez*

District J – Mike Laster*

District K – Larry Green*

At-Large 1 – Stephen Costello*

At-Large 4 – C.O. “Brad” Bradford*

At-Large 5 – Jack Christie*

*indicates incumbent

“Houston’s economy is thriving, and the real estate market is at its strongest position in decades. REALTORS and homeowners owe much of this to sound fiscal policy, and a Mayoral administration that promotes responsible commercial and residential growth,” said HAR Political Affairs Advisory Group Chair Nancy Furst of The Furst Group. “HAR is proud to have a very positive working relationship with Houston City Council, and we look forward to working with our supported candidates for the next two years of their service on City Council.”

Of interest is their backing of CM Helena Brown in District A. It’s striking because they could have easily waited till the runoff to pick a side in that multi-candidate race, and of course because former CM Brenda Stardig is herself a realtor who had their support in each of the last two elections. HAR generally sticks with incumbents, so in that sense it’s not too surprising, but still. That’s got to sting a little for Stardig, and it’s a big get for Brown. Both sets of endorsements, along with a set from the Greater Houston Restaurant Association and an updated list from the Harris County Tejano Democrats are on the 2013 Elections page. Ben Hall also picked up endorsements from the Baptist Ministers Association and the Harris County Republicans, which describes itself as “a General Purpose Committee PAC that is dedicated to increasing Republican turnout in Harris County elections”. They will be mailing out their slate of endorsed candidates to Republican voters, but I don’t have that slate at this time, nor do I know if the Baptist Ministers Association has endorsed anyone else, so those are not on the page yet. When and if I get a release or a link with a full list of their endorsed candidates, I will add them.

As for the rant, I was all set to grouse about the HCTJs, as I had heard about their updated list from a couple of the candidates on it but had not gotten it from them before yesterday, then they went and took the wind out of my sails. And good for them for doing so! There are still plenty of others to find fault with. The C Club – I’m interested in Republican-friendly endorsements, too – has one Endorsed Candidates link on their webpage that takes you to a members login screen, and another Endorsed Candidates link that gives their slate for Lone Star College Trustees from May. The last endorsements I can find for the HPOU are from 2010; I even sent an email two weeks ago to info@hpou.org asking for their slate, but have not received a response. The HPFFA has endorsed multiple candidates, but the only ones you can find out about on their website are Ben Hall and Roland Chavez. A lot of other endorsing organization are PACs, and you can learn about their preferences via candidate finance reports, but they all have webpages and/or Facebook pages, none of which carry this information. I continue to have no idea why they all make this so difficult. Why bother to endorse candidates if it’s nigh impossible for actual voters to learn who you’ve endorsed? What am I missing here?

Anyway. This is all a reminder that the endorsements I list on my 2013 Elections page are as best I can determine. If you know of a set of endorsements I’ve missed, and can send me a press release or a link to them, please do so. If you can explain why so many endorsed slates are shrouded in secrecy, please do that, too. Thanks.

The hospitality industry industry’s effect on the economy

I had the opportunity recently to attend a presentation by the Greater Houston Restaurant Association (GHRA) of a study they sponsored of the economic impact of the hospitality industry in Harris County. Here’s the high level view:

The study found Houston’s hotels, restaurants and drinking establishments make significant annual contributions to the local economy. The ardent purchasing power of the hospitality industry is both directly and indirectly linked with significant benefits for local businesses in the form of sales, employment, employee income and taxes.

“The combined efforts of the industry have resulted in an apparent economic boon to the Houston economy; the vibrancy of our local industry is a major draw within our city and the surrounding metropolitan area,” said GHRA President, Reggie Coachman. “The economic success of the region’s hospitality industry is directly linked to the thousands of owners, employees, suppliers and wholesalers that support it.”

The study reported hotels, restaurants and their employees contributed an estimated $792 million in direct, indirect and induced state and local taxes in 2011. The majority of direct taxes were property taxes paid by hospitality industry establishments and their employees. For every million dollars of direct industry sales, there was an estimated $700,000 of associated indirect and induced sales related to hospitality industry purchases from local suppliers, hospitality industry and supplier employee purchases from local businesses. Hotels and restaurants remitted $740 million during 2011 in sales and hotel occupancy taxes on consumer purchases.

Hotels and restaurants in Harris County are responsible for directly employing more than 162,000 workers, roughly nine percent of the county’s workforce, and generating $7.9 billion in annual sales revenue. Additionally, there were an estimated 41,800 indirect and induced jobs created to support the industry. The total employment contribution of the Harris County hospitality industry is estimated to be 203,900 full-time and part-time jobs.

The hospitality industry’s total Harris County direct, indirect and induced income contribution totaled $6.0 billion in 2011, including $3.5 billion of direct wages, tips and benefits paid to hospitality industry employees and $2.5 billion of indirect and induced income earned by employees of suppliers and other businesses. For each dollar of direct compensation paid to hospitality industry employees, the total estimated contribution to Harris County personal income was $1.70.

The study was done by Ernst and Young for the GHRA’s 75th anniversary, and you can see the bullet points here and the full study here. One of the things I find impressive about this is that the number of dining and drinking establishments grew from about 5000 in the county in 2001 to about 6000 in 2011, with only 2008 seeing a drop in the total. Given the way the economy has been buffeted in that time, that’s really something. Something they talked about at the presentation is how hospitality is the first job for many people. That was true for me, and I think it does you a lot of good to spend a few months waiting tables or working some other aspect of food service. Given how Houston has grown in stature as a restaurant town, it’s good to see the benefit of this quantified. Now that the GHRA has this study, I hope it will help lead it to the right conclusion about food trucks. Anyway, it’s good stuff, so check it out. Tory, who was also at the presentation, has more.

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.

[…]

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.