Monday, October 3, 2016

Food Truckers' Case Against Baltimore Still Stands

“Contrary to the city’s argument, Maryland courts take seriously the right to pursue one’s chosen profession free from arbitrary and irrational regulations,” Institute for Justice attorney Greg Reed
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake doesn't have it easy in her last couple of months in office. Even though the skirmish with the food truckers seems like small potatoes compared to the feud with Marilyn Mosby and the ongoing battles around the police department, the City still suffered a loss when a judge refused to dismiss the suit of the food-truckers against the city and its rule that food trucks have to stay 300' from bricks and mortar restaurants.
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Food trucks that were once derogatorily called "roach coaches" have advanced to being leading indicators of a city's coolness on par with brewpubs, coffee shops,  community gardens and kitchen incubators. They seem to be such an appropriate response to the impatience of the young new urban hipsters who don't always want to wait around until regular stationary brick and mortar restaurants have chewed through all the regulations, permits and licences before they can colonize a turning neighborhood. The food truck is the ideal pop-up installation to feed the lunch crowds in places where food choices are dearth.
Food trucks experienced a boom just as the economy started to tank. Restaurateurs who were hesitant to drop serious cash on launching a restaurant turned to mobile trucks as a less expensive way to sell food in a down economy. (Huffington Post Oct 12, 2012)
They set up daily across from what used to be the Morris Mechanic Theater in front of the abandoned Greek colonnade bank building on Charles Street, in front of the Benton Building around the corner from City Hall, at the University of Maryland square between Paca and Green along Baltimore Street and a as a planned initiative in the EBDI area on Eager Street.
Eager Street "Food Truck Hub"
This isn't always a very "green" undertaking thanks to diesel engines idling to power the truck and portable generators making a stinky ruckus. I am not sure where the 300' foot rule really has been such an issue, but as I reported in May, at least two food truck owners thought that the City's rule was onerous enough to file suit.

As slow as the justice process usually works, there is a chance that the food truck fashion subsides before the judges decide, but then, maybe the trucks are here to stay along with the Ice Cream Truck which has held its domain for many decades. The Smithsonian in describing the LA food truck scene and giving a serious analysis of the phenomenon:

in L.A., where on some afternoons they can be as thick on the freeway as taxicabs are on New York’s Sixth Avenue, they define the landscape. Kogi represents mobility in a city that worships mobility; it is a vehicle for traversing lines of race, class and ethnicity; it is selling a social experience as much as it is selling Blue Moon mulitas and Blackjack quesadillas.

Gypsy Queen Food truck in Fells Point: In midst of restaurants
In a challenged city such as Baltimore, food trucks open up a first step for the fledgling restaurateur entrepreneur, not easy but easier than a full restaurant. The "Roaming Hunger" blog warns would start-ups:
The most important thing to always keep in mind is that owning and operating a food truck is a business and to be truly successful, you have to treat it like a full time job. As with any other business, running a food truck requires your complete focus and attention. To ensure that your truck has the best chances at thriving, be prepared to become a master at Excel spreadsheets, creating expense reports, making business plans, and arranging a solid menu. Running a food truck shouldn’t be treated as a hobby or something to do in your spare time. 
Baltimore cannot have enough young entrepreneurs and creation of the kind of wealth that stays in the pockets of those who own and do the work.

The 300' rule that seems so fair on first glance is, on second thought, just another example of the myopic zero sum thinking that so often prevails in Baltimore. As if the skyrocketing expenditures on prepared food hadn't created a big enough economic space in recent years for mobile and stationary food to be sold.
The City Council set to finally approve the new zoning code this fall should take the case to heart: Sometimes it is better to have no rule than one too many.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ report about the law suit
Food Trucks are a hot business in Baltimore