Food Trucks and Restaurants Bump Against Grease, Drugs and Empty Chairs

Let's make Houston a more walkable city, even if people are walking on their way to tacos. Or so went the thinking for dozens who showed up to Wednesday's council committee meeting in support of relaxing regulations for food trucks.

The issues on the line: whether food trucks are allowed to serve in the medical center and downtown areas; whether food trucks need to set up at least 60 feet away from each other and whether they can operate within 100 feet of chairs and tables.

The camps: food truck owners, who swarmed the public comment session, versus the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which claims brick and mortar eateries are losing business unfairly to the trendy mobile competition.

It's a familiar clash, with a long-established industry floundering in reaction to the threat of an innovative business model. Recently, city council opted to welcome ridesharing companies Lyft and Uber to operate legally in Houston despite the outcry of traditional taxi companies. In that case, taxi companies also claimed that ridesharing companies had unfair advantages, with some inaccurately accusing Lyft and Uber of forgoing background checks for their drivers. Ultimately council members ruled to level the playing field by relaxing certain regulations for traditional taxis, such as allowing them to offer reduced rates through an app.

Food truck owners who testified Wednesday offered varying degrees of compromise. Some warned the food truck movement is the inevitable future of the food service industry, loved by hungry urbanites regardless of government restrictions. Others, such as Justin Turner of Bernie's Burger Bus, said he doesn't actually make money from his food trucks. He uses his fleet of trucks as greasy promotional ammo for his brick and mortar restaurant, the flagship enterprise.

Those who spoke against decreasing regulations fingered the "bad apples" of the food truck scene, trucks that allegedly pour waste into public drains and park for hours on residential streets. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig's accusations that some trucks have dealt drugs out of their windows were met with snickering from food truck supporters.

The Greater Houston Restaurant Association's official stance, despite the dissenting opinions of some members, is to keep the status quo in defense of restaurant owners' initial investments in licenses and certifications, as well as their clientele.

"Houston restaurants must meet extensive Code requirements ... We employ thousands of people, pay significant taxes to the City and provide service to our communities," according to a restaurant association statement. "We do not support deregulating Mobile Food Units at the cost of harm to our businesses."

That might become a tough sell, considering the growing number of brick-and-mortar restaurants that now run a food truck, or three, on the side for promotion.

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