The long-simmering dispute between New Orleans City Hall and the city's burgeoning food truck industry came back to the public's attention on Jan. 18 with this Facebook post:
"Kudos to District A Council Member Susan G. Guidry for her staff's work to rid Uptown of the scourge of tasty Taceaux. Someone complained about our Thursday stand at Romney Pilates Center and now her staff is poring over the Byzantine laws to force us to quit. If you live in District A and like your Thursday Taceaux, you may want to give her office a call, email, or express your concern on her FB page."
The message, which appeared on Taceaux Loceaux's page, was written by Alex del Castillo. Del Castillo and his wife Maribeth founded the popular taco truck in 2009. Lately the truck has been operating outside Romney Pilates at 5619 Magazine St. every Thursday, per an agreement with Erin Romney, who owns the fitness center.
Guidry says she called city Zoning Administrator Edward Horan after she received complaints about the truck. Horan discovered Taceaux Loceaux's mobile stand blocked some of Romney's parking spaces, leaving too few spaces available under city zoning laws. Horan says he spoke to Romney's lawyer, Justin Schmidt, who advised Romney to end the relationship with the food truck.
Guidry says she was merely responding to constituent complaints when she contacted Horan and was not signaling an effort to ban food trucks in her district. Horan says he heard from Guidry's office only once.
"All this was just a response to complaints of people in the neighborhood," Guidry says, adding that she likes food trucks. "Sometimes you just try to respond to your constituents and you become aware of an issue about which you had no idea."
She soon will. It turns out that del Castillo, and likely more food trucks, are regularly violating more than parking space requirements, although they may not be aware of it. A group of food truck operators led by Rachel Billow, proprietor of the South American food truck La Cocinita, and including the del Castillos and longtime truck operator Linda Green (the "Yakamein Lady") hope to change that. Billow is drafting a document calling for the City Council and Mayor Mitch Landrieu to simplify food truck codes. Billow says a draft proposal will be ready as early as this week.
"It's going to be a letter/proposal to all council members, to the mayor, to try to get people to listen, basically," she says. "We're trying to make a list of supporters, including any council members we think would likely back us on this, as well as anyone from the restaurant industry."
Billow says the proposal will call for removing codes restricting the areas where food trucks can operate, lifting a limit on mobile vendor permits and eliminating confusing language on how long a truck can park at a particular location.
Under the New Orleans municipal code's lengthy section regulating mobile food vendors, operators must obtain permits specifically for food trucks — at a cost of more than $300 apiece. In theory the permits are available once the food trucks have passed health and fire inspections. Because the law limits the number of active permits to 100, however, permits generally aren't immediately available to new businesses.
Billow says she spent thousands of dollars getting her truck up to code between August, when she bought it in Florida, and last fall. That accomplished, she still couldn't get a permit because the city had reached its 100-truck limit. Billow got a catering license instead and operated out of compliance. At the beginning of January, a mobile vendor permit finally opened up.
"As soon as we booked the flights to get the truck," Billow says, she posted on Twitter that La Cocinita would open in September 2011, "because we figured it would take a few weeks."
Food trucks are forbidden to operate in the French Quarter and the Central Business District (CBD). Billow says her proposal likely will call for eliminating the CBD restriction.
"I'm not going to touch the French Quarter issue," she says.
A more important target is the restriction that prohibits operations within "600 feet of any lawfully operated restaurant, cafeteria, public or private school, or any concession operated by a booster club sanctioned by the department of recreation." Guidry, who did not comment as to whether she supports the law, says she understands why some restaurant owners may oppose food trucks operating nearby.
"[Restaurant owners] have the expense of the lease and the purchase of the property, and all that's entailed there," Guidry says. "They could be put at a disadvantage" if a food truck, which has lower start-up and operating costs, were to operate on the same block and compete for the same customers, she says.
That's why Billow hopes to get local restaurants on board. She recently joined the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), in part to draw the support of its members, she says. Gambit contacted the LRA about whether it would support easing restrictions on food trucks, but spokeswoman Erica Papillion declined to comment before the proposal is ready.
However, some local restaurateurs say that by lifting existing restrictions, the city would be giving food trucks an unfair advantage.
"Obviously it's a lot more (expense) to operate a business, a brick-and-mortar business, than a food truck that's stealing customers," says Erich Weishaupt, co-owner of Ruby Slipper Cafe, which has a location in the CBD. "I'd definitely be opposed to it. I don't know what else to say other than I find this disturbing."
Lastly, Billow says, she hopes to put an end to a confusingly worded section of city code, one that applies to mobile vendors in general and the one Guidry cited when asked about Taceaux Loceaux. The law limits the time vendors can stay in any one place to 45 minutes per day. The law was written to include food vendors, but a subsection added later exempts food trucks. Guidry says that "appears to be an inconsistency" in the law.
When even city officials can't figure out which laws apply and which don't, the law is far too complicated and stifles businesses, Billow says.
"I want the food truck scene here to be vibrant and lively and as big here as it is in Austin (Texas) and Portland (Ore.) and all these other cities," she says.
According to Lizzy Caston, a writer who specializes in food trucks and writes for the blog NolaFoodTrucks.com, New Orleans' food truck laws are overly complex, adversarial and behind the curve. (Billow says Caston has been helping develop a draft for her proposal.)
"Many cities have anti-truck laws," Caston writes in an email to GAMBIT. But some, including Jackson, Miss., Atlanta, Cleveland, Austin, Seattle and San Francisco, have begun overhauling those laws.
"I have a master's (degree) in urban planning [and] development," Caston writes. "I work as an economic development consultant & consult [with] cities all over the US. Just met [with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee] last month on mobile vendor food permitting. Trust me when I say [New Orleans'] laws are ... out of date, confusing [and] very strangely written."
Baton Rouge, for example, imposes relatively few restrictions on food trucks. According to Tiffani Delapasse, revenue manager for East Baton Rouge Parish, food truck vendors there are only required to pass state health and safety inspections, then pay $200 (plus a $100 deposit) for an itinerant vendor license good for one year. The city doesn't have a limit on the number of permits it issues, nor does it restrict where food trucks may operate.
Then again, Baton Rouge is an entirely different restaurant market than New Orleans, which has many small, locally owned eateries that have operated in neighborhoods for decades.
Weishaupt remains unconvinced, saying the proposals being discussed by Billow and others could cost existing restaurants 5 to 10 percent of their total business. "That's a big impact for businesses that survive on pennies," he says.