Food Truck Frenzy versus Public Safety
Houston revised guidelines governing mobile food units just a few short years ago. There were many reasons for strengthening the regulations but the most important ones were safety.
The fact is that food trucks are operating well in Houston today. The existing regulations adequately protect consumers while allowing the trucks to thrive. Everyone is a winner.
The Mobile Food Unit Coalition is trying to loosen regulations in order to enhance their businesses and gain advantages on their competition.
To be clear, food trucks are NOT banned in downtown Houston. In fact, there are food trucks and vendors every week at the City’s own “prepared foods market” that they refer to as the “Farmer’s market”. All are in compliance with existing code. This Code requires that food trucks not park within 60 feet of each other and that a member of HFD be on site. It does not prohibit food trucks in downtown Houston.
Currently, there are more than 939 active mobile units permitted in the City of Houston. 774 of those are trucks and trailers equipped with kitchens while others include ice cream trucks, mall carts, and etcetera. The Mobile Food Unit Coalition primarily represents a small number (less than 50) of those trucks. Their 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 mobile food 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 Codes much less manage loosening the regulations while maintaining an increased number of required inspections.
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. They have been witnessed disposing of their grease in city storm sewers and rarely moving. They have patrons that loiter near the trucks and engage in inappropriate behaviors 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 should 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 pay the accompanying taxes. If foot traffic is what the city is seeking, tables and chairs will eliminate the “mobile” from their definition. Again, we do not believe that this is an issue with the vocal 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, tax-paying 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 space that has 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 cities that have deregulated food trucks, permits have increased two to three fold. Most cities are already re-evaluating the changes they made as they realize the impact to existing businesses and the loss of revenue to their cities by the closure of brick and mortar restaurants. New York City, which you mentioned in your editorial, is actually moving food trucks out of the city. Los Angeles is re-evaluating the impact they have created on taxpayers as well.
We believe that food trucks contribute to our community and our diverse culture. We also believe that exceptions to rules should not be made to make their efforts easier and harm existing businesses as well as endanger public safety.
Let’s leave the food truck regulations as they are today. Everyone wins.