Food trucks currently are the topic of dozens of local and national conversations right now — in editorials, snark-choked conspiracy theories, and as reporters discover them in Austin during the biggest music festival in the country.
Today, New Orleans City Council members held another public meeting to discuss legislation that would allow more food trucks in New Orleans and streamline the requirements and protocols for food truck operators. New Orleans Food Truck Coalition president Rachel Billow said the organization has received more than 50 emails from interested food truck operators last year, and that City Hall's hand-written waiting list for permits is more than two pages long. (Current law allows 100 active mobile vendor permits. Proposed legislation increases it to 200.)
Council president Stacy Head read concerns from Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) president Paul Rotner (though she added that much of the "factual basis on which his opposition rests is incorrect") — the proximity of trucks from restaurants (set at 100 feet in the draft legislation), availability of mobile vendor washrooms (currently being discussed), insurance (trucks must have liability insurance), and which city department will handle oversight (the Bureau of Revenue's Department of Finance, which handles codes for all businesses).
Head noted a "strange" article on food trucks that asked why laws need to be written if food trucks have existed before them. "I don't think it's a good idea for food truck operators to operate outside the law," she said. "It's our job to make the laws consistent, understandable and reasonable, and you demand adherence to those rules."
Jackie Clarkson, who presided over the meeting's first agenda item on the Port of New Orleans for an hour and 15 minutes, announced she had to leave before she addressed her concerns with the new ordinance.
"This meeting was called to make sure we can respond to your questions," Head said.
Clarkson then listed her concerns: trash pickup (which Head said has been a part of the draft legislation "since Day 1"), as well as hand washing on the side of trucks, and the 100 feet proximity from restaurants. "I'm not happy with the 100 feet distance at all," Clarkson said.
She also expressed concern over food trucks' potential access to the Warehouse District, citing "congestion" near the National World War II museum. ("They're actually a supporter," Head noted.) "Traffic congestion and clearing for events is a problem," Clarkson said.
Clarkson also was concerned over whether the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) was capable of oversight and spot checking for health and safety.
"We're having a lot of trouble getting them to publicly say what they say privately, which is, 'We believe we already do a good job regulating the food truck industry, we believe any changes we make within our rules ... only will better what we're doing,'" Head said, adding that DHH "doesn't want to get political." Head also frankly stated that the LRA is using the DHH's relucatance to get involved with the city's legislative process as an excuse to "block any food truck legislation." Clarkson wants the DHH's commitment "in writing."
"Health and public safety is our No. 1 priority as well," Billow said. "We're all on the same page in terms of that." Billow said her truck, La Cocinita, has been subject to spot inspections from DHH and the city's Department of Revenue.
Clarkson strangely noted that her "favorite thing at Mardi Gras is food trucks with hot dogs and candy apples, by the way." After a brief, puzzled silence, Head said, "Those are carnies who are not from New Orleans, generally. Those are outside of the food truck rules." (Vendors during Carnival must apply to sell food in a separate lottery — La Cocinita was the only New Orleans truck serving in 2013.)
Regarding a "restroom requirement," Billow said any required distance to a restroom would prevent trucks from serving under-served neighborhoods. "If we put a restroom requirement in place, that's going to make that very difficult," she said, adding that truck owners typically "partner up with other businesses to allow use of their restrooms."
Before Clarkson left the meeting, she pounced on Billow as discussion went to the 100 feet proximity requirement that would prohibit trucks from serving within 100 feet of a restaurant:
"It's likely unconstitutional to have a proximity requirement," Billow said.
"You have to prove that to me," Clarkson replied. "You're talking about land owners, private property rights, you're talking about tax payers on property. I come from that world. That would have to be proven in court for me. You don't want to go there with me on that. Don't argue that with me."
"In my mind, the 100 feet is a good compromise and I'll explain why," Billow said "A 600 feet radius severely limits where we're allowed to operate. If you add that to the current addition of the restriction from operating in residential areas, it would essentially make it impossible to operate at all. Are we in agreement that 600 feet is extreme?"
"I'm trying not to get into measurements with you, and I'm trying not to argue," Clarkson said. "I will back off the whole thing."
Linda Green the "Ya Ka Mein Lady," who has served ya ka mein and other street food classics for more than 20 years, and Chef Demietriek Scott, who runs NOLA Foods trucks, submitted public comment supporting the legislation.
"Don't choke the culture," said Scott, who has served meals at second line parades and other events for years before he realized the city required permitting. "Give the food truck culture a chance."