Just a little over a year ago, there were only one or two mobile food vendors that ventured out to sell food in downtown Baton Rouge. Now, there are about 14.
Stories of increases in gourmet trucks are popping up in major cities across the country, but due to rapid growth, lack of clarity of parking regulations and a few other related issues are occasionally the cause of contention between the owners of mobile vendors and the lease-paying restaurant owners.
Every story has its characters and usually every character wants something. The conflicting desires drive the action in the story, pushing dramatically towards a climactic turning point, after which the characters’ decisions formulate unavoidable resolutions.
What Exactly does Each Group Want?
At lunch time, city workers contemplate a growing menu of food choices.
The Bite Me food truck offers a unique menu.
Standing in line for boudin balls at the “Bite Me” truck, Tyler Dixon, a foodie who works in the Bienville building on Main Street, said that he likes the variety the mobile vendors offer.
While waiting for his fried fish plate at Taylor Made Concessions,
Vasken, a social services city worker said, “I only have a 30-minute lunch break, so I like the convenience of being able to quickly walk outside my office and grab a quick lunch.”
Centered about one-two blocks from where each mobile food unit had temporarily stationed for the day, Subway provided hungry customers with not only a variety of sandwich choices, but also a sit-down meal and air conditioning.
Owners of mobile vendors want to know what they can and can’t do. Taylor said, “I want to respect the local restaurant owners, so I
don’t park in front of them. But, new people come in and don’t know this.” He added, “I think they would be more comfortable with me being here if we had some guidelines, like ‘park 50 feet from any restaurant’.”
Jessica Barraza, current owner of Caliente Mexican Cravings in Central, is looking into buying a mobile cart. She said, “When I start my business, I’d like to have in my hand maybe a Code of Ethics that encapsulates the acceptable and unacceptable rather than just a rigid list of legal and illegal rules. I think that would be a proactive approach.”
Kyle Henry, General Manager of Schlittz and Giggles pizza restaurant on 3rd Street, said that he is mostly concerned that vendors follow the same health regulations stationary restaurants are required to follow.
Owner of Main Street’s Subway Al Choremar wants guidelines to protect the stationary merchants. He also wants to see more retail businesses downtown that he believes would draw a greater influx of customers. “We just don’t have enough business for all of these restaurants,” Choremar said.
With a different perspective, Kevin Black, owner of GoYaYa crepe restaurant located within the Mainstreet Marketplace said, “The day we had more food trucks outside was one of our busiest.” He feels that the reasoning behind this is more choice.
The Louisiana Restaurant Association embraces the entrepreneurial endeavors of anyone striving to be a part of the food industry. Spokesperson Erica Papillion said, “A lot of people start with a food truck in order to get their foot in the door of the restaurant business, and I think it’s a great goal to have.”
John Snow, co-owner of Taco de Paco and Ninja Snowball trucks and also Founder/CEO of the Baton Rouge Mobile Food Vendor’s Association (BRMFVA) said that together the brick-and-mortar food vendors and the mobile food truck offer “different levels of amenities that appeal to different consumers.” He said the mobile vendors can definitely provide choice for customers, but especially in inclement weather conditions, customers typically prefer amenities offered by the stationary restaurants.
The BRMFVA, according to Snow, has some “unwritten rules” to not park directly in front of fixed eateries, but new vendors may not be privy to them. He said he’s willing to sit down to discuss an agreeable written consensus, as long as it doesn’t inhibit competition.
Local and State Government
“As downtown continues as a 24-hour dynamic, having food trucks around when no one else is open is a great compliment, “ said Davis Rhorer, Executive Chair for the Downtown Development District. “Other cities have friction, but I think that in downtown Baton Rouge [the food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants] can be co-existent, especially when they don’t directly compete.”
City Councilwoman Tara Wicker said the two parties should convene to discuss times of operation and locations. She added, “We should come together as a city to legally and effectively provide variety and good service.”
Parish Attorney Joseph Scott said “I understand their need for clarity, but it’s really an industry problem.” However, he added that a few dated city ordinances are posted online at the Municipal Code Corporation website, including licensing and insurance requirements and zoning regulations.
Any citizen can initiate a new ordinance, according to Scott. Here is the process:
1. Ask a metro councilperson to support a new ordinance.
2. If supported, the parish attorney, a copyright lawyer, will draft the new ordinance and make sure it’s constitutional.
3. The council votes. Any ordinance with at least seven votes is adopted as law.
Scott said the primary regulation of food trucks is through the parish health unit at the state level. Contrary to common misconceptions, food trucks must have many of the same requirements as restaurants.
Building relationships between mobile truck owners and fixed food establishment owners is “all about education,” said Sean Basinski, director of the New York City Street Vendor Project.
Modern day political philosopher and one of Harvard University’s most prominent professors, Michael L. Sandel, wrote a book titled Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? that challenges readers to closely examine the processes by which they draw conclusions about “justice.” Sandel’s book, according to one critic, “shows how to balance competing values, a talent our nation desperately needs nowadays.”
John Snow suggests taking a look at Lizzie Caston’s Food Cartology: Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places, an in-depth research project on the impact of food trucks in Portland, Oregon. Snow said the study advocates food trucks as “adding to the quality of life for people in communities.”