"Food trucks -- are they allowed to sell other items within the food trucks?" asked a bewildered-sounding Jack Christie, Council Member At Large 5, during Tuesday morning's City Council hearing on food truck regulations.
"To what extent does it not become a food truck?" Christie continued. "I realize there may be limitations on that -- on those items -- some legal...and some illegal." The audience in the chamber, many of them food truck owners themselves, started buzzing.
"Did he just insinuate that food trucks are selling drugs?" asked a woman to my right. That's what many audience members -- and local media -- seemed to gather from Christie's line of questioning, one of a long string that seemed to lose focus of the actual agenda item at the City Council hearing: a few minor deregulations that would allow food trucks to operate downtown as well as offer limited seating outside their units.
In fact, the changes to food truck regulations that City of Houston sustainability director Laura Spanjian proposed before a City Council meeting Tuesday were very simple:
- Allow food trucks with propane tanks to operate downtown and in the Medical Center, as long as those propane tanks are less than 40 pounds.
- Eliminate the minimum required space between food trucks, allowing them to park closer than 60 feet away from each other (remember how obnoxious it was to have so many food trucks spread out at Haute Wheels?).
- Require that four or more food trucks parked in close proximity to one another have a fire safety officer on hand, for propane safety reasons.
- Allow food trucks to provide three tables and six chairs outside of their units, as long as the seating is removed before the truck leaves.
These allowances are in place in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to New York City. As it currently stands, Houston is the only city that doesn't allow propane-equipped food trucks to operate downtown and one of the only cities that restrict their seating options.
Despite this, many City Council members seemed reluctant to listen to Spanjian's proposal -- several of them unhappy over having not been presented with the information prior to the hearing, although Spanjian had requested to meet with them beforehand -- and instead focused on questions that were off-topic or that made us wonder if they'd been fed to them by lobbyists opposed to food truck deregulation.
Between asking Spanjian bizarre questions about how many food trucks were "illegal," Council Member Mike Laster seemed intent on focusing on two things: the number of citywide food truck inspectors and the number of additional food truck permits the City could expect to see if the regulations were eased.
"Basically, there's just under a thousand mobile units that your three or four inspectors have to oversee on a day-to-day basis, is that correct?" Laster asked Spanjian, who had already made clear that there are actually more inspectors per food truck than there are inspectors per restaurant: The ratio is 313 to 1 for food trucks and 413 to 1 for restaurants.
That didn't prevent Laster or Council Member C.O. Bradford from continuing to harp on the three to four citywide food truck inspectors -- a number they didn't see as sufficient -- nor did it keep them from continually questioning the 40 pounds of propane that each truck would be allowed to keep on board.
"I'm concerned about safety issues as it relates to 40 pounds of propane per truck," said Bradford. "Forty pounds of propane per truck! But there's no limit to the number of trucks -- you could have 10 trucks lined up with 40 pounds of propane each -- is that correct?"
Those same propane tanks, argued Spanjian and a host of public speakers, are found on restaurant patios with heaters all over the city...including downtown restaurants. The tanks are perfectly safe when regulated and inspected, said Houston Fire Department Chief Joe Leggio, who assured the Council that his department's inspection program was rigorous.
More importantly, those same propane tanks -- in 20-pound quantities -- are found in backyard gas grills all over the city. Propane tanks are used to fuel food trucks across the nation, including in cities such as Washington D.C. and New York City, where public safety is of utmost importance. There have been a handful of incidents in which propane tanks exploded, but it's a small number -- and there's never been a propane explosion on a food truck in Houston.
Grease fires in restaurants, in fact, are far more common. As Kraftsmen owner Scott Tycer put it to the Council when he had his two minutes at the public podium, a grease fire in one of the downtown tunnel-level restaurants which vented up into the building above would be far more destructive. Council Member James Rodriguez, however, was keen to have the Chief Leggio expound upon what would happen if a propane tank exploded instead -- even though Leggio's description was based solely on video evidence, not first-hand experience.
The questions got even stranger when Council Member Andrew Burks began hinting at the possibility of terrorists using food trucks' propane tanks as weapons, a comment that prompted laughter from the audience.
"Anything catastrophic like that could be a real hard damage and hard time for Houston, Texas or anywhere," commented Burks. "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..."
More to the point, however, the Council seemed primarily concerned with the business and tax revenue impact of allowing food trucks downtown, which they saw as bringing undue competition as well as "danger" -- according to Burks -- to a part of the city that's already struggling for business.
Most City Council members aren't familiar with Houston's burgeoning food truck scene, and instead equate mobile food units with roving roach coaches that skirt the law and sell dirty food. Outdated ideas of food trucks aside, however, the biggest barrier to Spanjian's proposed changes was the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.
The GHRA has actively lobbied against the proposed food truck changes, seemingly envisioning a dystopian future in which all brick-and-mortar restaurants have been displaced by Genghis Khan-style food truck hordes, masters of all they survey. It is anathema to them that food trucks and restaurants can co-exist peacefully side-by-side -- and even more anathema that food trucks (i.e., competition) can actually improve their business by bringing more foot traffic to quiet areas such as the streets of downtown Houston.
"Let's use Whataburger for an example," said Christie, attempting to explain his point of view on the possible "unfair" advantage trucks could have over restaurants. "Somebody has permission to go next door to the parking lot and -- you know -- Whataburger, if you put out tables and chairs gives them an unfair advantage to Whataburger because they pay rent, taxes, the whole deal. So I'm just wondering if there should be some limitations on tables and chairs."
One downtown restaurant owner told ABC-13's Miya Shay that they support the GHRA: "We depend on foot traffic," Frank's Pizza owner Debbie Love told Shay. "If people are walking four or five blocks to Frank's, and they see four or five food trucks along the way, obviously they have more options. We feel like it's going to really hurt our business."
Avi Katz, however, gave an impassioned example of how hosting food trucks in his parking lot didn't cannibalize his own food sales at Inversion -- the coffeehouse he runs in addition to his primary business, Katz Coffee -- but actually increased his overall sales as well as his public standing in the Montrose area. None of his neighbors -- commercial or residential -- ever complained about the trucks either, Katz noted during his turn at the podium.
From big-name Houston industry persons such as Chris Shepherd and Bobby Heugel to public figures such as Rice University lecturer Bernard Freeman, also known as rapper Bun B, there was an outpouring of support for food trucks at the hearing, but that support seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The Council similarly refused to consider the points of view brought by organizations such as the Downtown District (which is in support of food trucks) or Urban Harvest. In one particularly bizarre digression -- one of many that stretched the hearing out for hours -- Council Member Wanda Adams attempted to accuse Urban Harvest of not running a "real" enough farmers market outside of City Hall.
But perhaps the most confusing statement of the day came from Burks, whose sole experience with food trucks seemed limited to a rather bucolic scene he witnessed in Washington D.C.:
Parking is at a premium downtown. It's not easy. Restaurants pay these dollars and cents to keep their doors open...but these food trucks are not regulated by anyone. We're talking about competition here -- there's no competition here. There's danger here. If it were competition and only competition, it wouldn't be dangerous. So what I'm saying is that I don't like this at all. I'll be outright with you: I'm not going to vote for it. I went to Washington D.C. in March this year and saw food trucks lined up and hundreds of people were lined up inside the park buying their food. And the trucks were not even the same. It looked like one raggedy truck and one nice truck and another raggedy, small truck. Is this what we want in downtown Houston? Is this the way we want our city to look? Is this the way we want to see our city at baseball games or at sporting events? Is this what we want to make our city look like?
Burks long comment prompted a chorus of "Yes!" to ring out from the audience, at which point I was sure that the Council was going to start kicking people out. Mercifully, it was the last outburst of the day.
On the bright side, not all Council members seemed opposed to the decreased regulations. Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzales was helpful and patient throughout, asking reasoned questions and attempting to steer comments back on track. And despite her farmers market issues, Adams seemed similarly open.
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If you support allowing food trucks to operate downtown and in the Medical Center, if you support allowing food trucks to provide a few seats or if you support a free market that allows healthy competition and brings vibrancy and foot traffic to areas that need it, there are plenty of ways to make your voice heard.
One way to start is by attending this Sunday's mobile food truck rally at The Refinery (a downtown restaurant that encourages food trucks!) from 4 to 10 p.m. You can also by sign a petition in support of food truck growth or simply write your City Council member. Tell them yes -- this is what we want our city to look like.