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City Council to consider new rules for food trucks

Critics say legislation, still in flux, is overly vague

By Luke Broadwater and Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

8:20 PM EST, March 3, 2014

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The Rawlings-Blake administration is proposing new regulations for the city's rapidly growing food truck industry — setting up zones for the mobile chefs to sell their designer grilled-cheese sandwiches, spicy tacos and decadent cupcakes.

The legislation, which a City Council committee will consider Tuesday, was written to encourage the vendors while also limiting where they operate to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants.

But some truck operators expressed concern the new limits would hurt their business, and the city's proposal was in flux Monday night. A city official said the administration might amend the plan to allow trucks to operate outside the zones as well.

Under current rules, the trucks can operate throughout the city. They are prohibited only from selling within 300 feet of an existing eatery.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the legislation is the city's effort to adopt comprehensive regulations for the industry, which has operated under the current, temporary rules since 2011. By setting up zones, she said, the city is trying to encourage an expansion of food trucks while eliminating tension between the trucks and traditional restaurants.

"What we have is a burgeoning industry that is adding vitality to our communities," Rawlings-Blake said. "One of the goals is to reduce any potential friction between two industries we'd like to see continue to succeed."

Some truck owners have criticized the plan as overly vague. They point out that the city has not established where the zones will be and has not released the rules of a proposed lottery to determine which trucks can go where.

"I'm still a little bit concerned about the ambiguity of this bill," said Christopher Cherry, who operates the Charm City Gourmet food truck.

Food trucks aren't exactly a new concept. Lunch wagons have long been a constant presence at construction sights. But the modern food-truck craze, which began in Los Angeles with gourmet taco trucks, hit Baltimore in 2009, with the debut of Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon, a spinoff from a Fells Point restaurant with a reputation for good hamburgers.

Today, there are 20 member trucks in the Maryland Mobile Food Truck Vendors Association, which represents food trucks on legislative issues and collaborates on marketing ventures. There are other licensed food trucks in Baltimore that aren't members of the association.

Doug Schmidt, principal at the Chesapeake Real Estate Group, which owns the Bagby Building in Harbor East, said he supports regulations on the trucks. He said sales at the Bagby Pizza Co. in his building were hurt when food trucks parked directly outside.

"We did have some concerns with food trucks parking right in front of our restaurants," he said. "Bagby Pizza had a real negative impact. I think food trucks are good, but I think it's reasonable to regulate them. They went from being part of the fabric of the city to a real nuisance to certain businesses. One doesn't have to exist to the detriment of the other."

While the legislation would set up zones for food trucks, it would also expand some areas where they can park, said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. The bill will allow trucks to operate in farmers markets that want them, give them greater access to city parks and permit sales in empty lots owned by the city, Harris said.

Babila Lima,the project manager overseeing the effort, said city officials are concerned with regulating food trucks as well as other mobile businesses, such as fashion trucks.

"As the industry is growing, we want to be able to prepare for the day the city has 100 trucks," he said. "The rules and regulations we have today don't really address them."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who is on the committee hearing the bill Tuesday, said she was concerned about the lack of details. She said she sees potential friction between businesses and food trucks not only over customers but over parking spaces.

"There are a lot of unknowns. We don't know where the zones are going to go," she said. "If you park in front of my restaurant with your food, you're competing with me and you're taking up my customers' spaces. This war's not going on yet, but why should we invite it?"

Likewise, food truck operators said they were worried that anything not detailed in the regulations will be subject to change down the road. City officials have told them about a proposed lottery for spaces, but such a lottery isn't mentioned in the legislation.

"We need to make sure [the legislation] is fair on how the zones will be distributed," said Willy Dely, a past president of the Maryland Mobile Food Vendors Association. Dely, who works for Kooper's Chowhound Burger Wagon, said food truck operators were pressing for a system along the lines of a fantasy-football draft. "You pick your spots in order of preference," Dely said. "We believe this is very important."

He said the truck owners were prepared for new regulations. "Everybody understands that things have to change," Dely said.

Traditional restaurants had mixed views on the competition between eateries and food trucks.

David Niehenke, co-owner of Mick O'Shea's in Mount Vernon, said he wants to see food trucks subject to the same kind of taxes, licensing and inspections that his restaurant is. "Unless they're regulated as much as we are, we're getting the short end of the stick. As long as it's a level playing field, then good luck to them.

"We're the ones paying the lion's share of the benefits to the local economy," he argued. "I feel like the brick-and-mortar places contribute more to the local economy."

Alan Hirsch, who co-owns Donna's restaurants in Charles Village and Cross Keys, said he doesn't think the trucks hurt his business.

"If a food truck camped out on our corner, it wouldn't hurt us much," he said. "We have a different price point at our cafe. But if I was the kind of place that sold $7 sandwiches, I certainly wouldn't be happy."

Although Hirsch said he thought it was a good idea for food trucks to be regulated for health and safety reasons, he wasn't among the restaurant owners asking for protection from the city.

"It's the market at work," Hirsch said about competition from food trucks. "I'm sure when Starbucks was rolling across the country, independent coffee shops were outraged. But there are still independent coffee shops. They had to figure out a way to compete. They started making better coffee."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com