Mayor Annise Parker may be with the times on certain issues -- she's certainly adept at social media, for one -- but the City of Houston's current food truck ordinance isn't one of them.
Parker participated in a live online chat via CultureMap yesterday afternoon frm 1 to 2 p.m., part of her continuing campaign to be more accessible to Houstonians (her last live chat was via the Houston Chronicle back in October).
Predictably, one of the questions posed by an Internet denizen was on the status of the current food truck ordinance, which its opponents claim is too restrictive and biased against mobile food units in favor of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Last fall, City of Houston sustainability director Laura Spanjian proposed changes to that before a City Council that was, shall we say, less than versed on the topic of food trucks.
The result was a rather embarrassing circus of bizarre questions from certain council members and defensive, rambling, confused responses to food truck supporters' concerns. Councilman Andrew Burks, Jr. provided some of the most memorable quotes during a City Council meeting on September 18, suggesting that the propane tanks many food trucks are equipped with could be used as bombs.
"Anything catastrophic like that could be a real hard damage and hard time for Houston, Texas or anywhere," Burks said, stressing the dangers posed by a single propane tank (which requires incendiary rounds to be repeatedly fired at it before it could explode, and which are found in mass quantities in nearly every restaurant patio, grocery store entrance and home improvement store).
Burks continued: "And you know that in the times which we live in, I think this is totally outrageous. I'm outraged by that. Because the reason is that in these times when people get bombed in embassy attacks and we put this type of bomb directly here in front of us and we know we could be causing trouble..."
Councilman Jack Christie questioned whether or not illegal substances were being sold from food trucks, and how massive chains like Whataburger could possibly survive being in direct competition with a handful of food trucks. Currently, one of the restrictions placed on food trucks requires that any seating must be at least 150 feet away from a mobile unit -- thus keeping the trucks from "competing" with a sit-down restaurant.
Other restrictions prevent food trucks from operating downtown or in the Medical Center without a special event permit, which are difficult to come by. A commenter in Parker's live chat session asked when this restriction would be lifted and the food truck ordinance reconsidered as a whole:
When can we have a Council vote on lifting food truck restrictions in Downtown and elsewhere? Even if there isn't sufficient votes to pass it, it is time to get Council Members on the record so they can be held responsible for their positions.
Parker's response indicated that she seemed aware of the cringe-worthy quotes that came out of the initial City Council meeting on the topic, saying:
I clearly support food trucks and wish to see the restrictions on food trucks downtown lifted. I'm not in the business of embarrassing Council Members, nor am I inclined to bring something to a vote that I know cannot pass. However, I intend to pass a new food truck ordinance as soon as practical, and I'm NOT going to give up. I encourage you to reach out to your council members!
The food truck ordinance wasn't the only food-related topic on the agenda, however. A commenter asked Parker when the Third Ward would finally get a grocery store, to which Parker responded:
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I have had a Food Desert Task Force for two years working on that issue. I am willing to assist with limited incentives for a grocery store to locate in any underserved or food desert location in Houston. Ultimately, it's a market decision by the grocers.
FYI, as an alternative, we are creating a system of allottment gardens on city-owned vacant lots throughout underserved areas so that people can grow their own fresh produce. The city is supporting farmer's markets in various areas.
And in answer to a commenter's question about her favorite restaurants, Parker namechecked Canopy, Harry's and La Mexicana -- all Montrose favorites near her home -- as well as wings and waffles mecca the breakfast klub.