Friday, May 13, 2016

Food Trucks vs. City of Baltimore

Along with bikeways, Uber service and local brews, the food truck has become a key metric for urbanity and what makes a city cool. So when a city messes with the food truck, one can expect a backlash from the large cohort of those who frequent them.
Plaintiff Madame BBQ: "Roaming Hunger" (website)

In the recent food fight in Baltimore, though, nobody messed with food trucks, it's them taking the City on. After having enjoyed several years of popularity and the fact that cities across the US have adjusted their local rules about mobile food preparation, parking and licenses to accommodate them, two mobile vendors feel emboldened to take one of the remaining restrictive rules on. Joey Venoni of Joey's pizza truck that hauls a 4000 pound brick pizza oven around and Nikki McGovan of the Madame BBQ truck (web-name "rovinghunger.com") filed suit against the City of Baltimore regarding the 2004 city code that requires them to not have vending zones within 300' of a retail business selling similar food. Food trucks have gradually moved from the derogatory term roach coach to the luxury shores of gourmet, ethnic, local and healthy foods and don't want any longer be seen as inferior food vendors that have to play second fiddle to the brick and mortar places which often remain the greasy spoons of old.
"The 300-foot rule has only one, illegitimate purpose: to protect existing brick-and-mortar businesses from competition" (food truck law suit against Baltimore City)
From the foodies perspective, the Baltimore regulation is discriminatory because no such rule applies to bricks and mortar places which can sit cheek to jowl in whatever number they feel comfortable or the market allows. Baltimore's Mayor takes a rather snotty attitude manifest in this statement:
"The food truck issue is much ado about nothing, the mayor and City Council have the authority to regulate public rights of way and the city frequently places limitations on what is and is not permitted in various locations." Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake
So who is right? How important are food trucks to a functioning city, and how far should cities go to accommodate them? A tax-paying brick and mortar store with several employees traditionally scores well on the urban asset scale (both, from the fiscal perspective as well as a service angle) and deserves a certain amount of predictability and security. The food truck coming in provides no predictability at all. One day the local brick and mortar business is without competition or within a well orchestrated ensemble of similar businesses, the next day the food truck shows up and may snatch cherished customers. If successful in that, the truck just may come back every day.
Food truck rally in Baltimore in 2012
(photo: ArchPlan Inc.)

There seems to be little data as to how much business is at stake for traditional food establishments. Common sense would agree that a food truck client is lost for the brick an mortar food sale since usually one doesn't buy one meal in two places. On the other hand, retail business isn't a zero sum game, that food truck customer may have otherwise not eaten at all, brought her own food or deferred eating until she gets home.
“[a] mobile vendor may not park a vendor truck within 300 feet of any retail business establishment that is primarily engaged in selling the same type of food product, other merchandise, or service.” (City Code)
The idea to sue the City about the 300' foot rule on the ground of equal regulations for all stands on shaky ground when it comes to comparing the business models of food trucks with those of brick and mortar eateries. On the other hand, the traditional eateries have little data as evidence for their fear that food trucks siphon off their business if they are allowed to park close by. The case is supported by the Institute of Justice, a public interest 501c3 law firm. The libertarian firm is based in Arlington, Va. with many cases brought against government in the name of "economic liberty".
Washington DC vendors lining up at Farragut Square
(Photo: ArchPlan Inc.)

Government regulation is about public protection and market fairness. The public has a legitimate interest that health, environment and aesthetics are regulated. They are all valid concerns when it comes to street vendors when they pull up alone or in droves, whether in simmering summer heat or in the depth of winter. No matter how cool, safe food preparation in a truck is a challenge, their engines and generators frequently spew fumes and noise that can spoil the pedestrian experiences that urbanists talk about so much and their presence isn't always an improvement of the streetscape. Whether the 300' rule is a proper regulation ensuring economic fairness is less obvious.

The food truck community seems to thrive from competition, at times by force (if a city relegates them all into a few allowable spots) many times voluntarily, when they flock to the same places for food truck rallies, competitions or events. Together they provide the desirable diversity and array of food choices.
Arraber: Selling food in the 'hood

Thus those trucks are the incubator spaces for the start-ups of the food industry. Certainly a good thing, for quality of life and for the competitiveness of cities. Food trucks combine the characteristics of pop-up businesses and of tactical urbanism, both tactics that are successfully deployed in other fields as well.
“In a city hungry for opportunity and more dining options, Baltimore’s city council has no business turning away food truck entrepreneurs and the jobs they bring,”  (Plaintiff attorney Rob Frommer)
This argument would be more convincing if the roving vendors would actively seek to mitigate food deserts and the lack of restaurant diversity in impoverished communities. But it is hard to spot a food truck there.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article 
Pizza Joey press release

Traditional street vendor: Hot dogs and drinks (Photo: ArchPlan Inc.)

Joey's Pizza truck: 4000 pounds of brick (website)