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MFU Houston

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.

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.