geoffrey gauchet

Starts with 'F', Ends with 'uck'

imageImage from Foodographer

Food trucks. They’re an interesting type of business that has definitely made waves over the last few years across the nation, with a couple of TV shows even dedicated to them. They produce quality food at reasonable prices and pop up all around your city at different times and days.

New Orleans has a love-hate relationship with food trucks. Many residents love them, City Council and some business associations hate them. The laws in the city that govern mobile food vendors are archaic and strict.

The city only allows 100 active mobile food vendor permits at a time. That means if you want to start up a food truck business, you have to wait for another one to go out of business and hope your application is ahead of someone else’s. And keep in mind, road-side produce and seafood vendors have these same permits too. They also cannot stay in the same spot for more than 45 minutes and cannot be parked within 600 feet of a restaurant or a school. 

They cannot park anywhere in the French Quarter or CBD and can only operate between 7am and 7pm. Their signs cannot be larger than 6 square feet. During Jazz Fest, they cannot park anywhere near the Fairgrounds. During Mardi Gras, there’s a whole different permitting process that is lottery-based to allow mobile vendors along parade routes.

Now, some of these things make sense, some of these things are outrageous. I can understand disallowing large food trucks to park in the French Quarter since it’s tough driving my Corolla through there as it is. But the CBD is a prime spot for food trucks and they can’t be there.

Recently, some business owners in the Warehouse District have been circulating e-mails around about their hatred of food trucks being near their part of town. Dirty Coast points out their two main points:

  1. Food truck employees will “Defecate” in the galleries or on the trucks themselves
  2. Food trucks feed homeless people and draw them to the neighborhood and homeless people are already “over-fed”.

Let’s go over that again: Cassandra Sharpe of Sharpe Real Estate and George Schmidt of Schmidt Gallery are against food trucks because their employees will take a dump at the art galleries, or on their own trucks. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a food truck — and anyone who’s bought food from one has — you can see that there is NO WHERE to take a dump on those things, and, if they did, customers would know it. I also highly doubt that employees will ask the art galleries if they can use their restrooms. If anything, they’d head to one of the bars in the area (Vic’s, Lucy’s, Rusty Nail, etc), or, you know, go home.

Secondly, their complaint is that food trucks serve homeless people. Yes, people with no money except what a few passers-by hand them and no home or no way to get a warm meal and are just trying to buy a little bit of food are one of the reasons they don’t like food trucks. Homeless people. HOMELESS PEOPLE. Such a shame that homeless people getting a bit to eat is an argument against something. And to say, in the same breath, that homeless people are “over-fed” — my god, what an elitist prick! As a real estate company owner, she’s likely never been homeless and has no idea how hungry and cold and sad those people are. God forbid they buy a fucking taco.

And never mind the fact that at any given moment there are like 100 homeless people under the interstate like 4 blocks from Julia St. It won’t be food trucks that cause them to “move in on” the neighborhood. It’s the sad quantity of homeless people that will.

Additionally, lots of people claim that food trucks are detrimental to existing businesses. Firstly, there’s already a law on the books that disallows food trucks from being within 600 feet of a restaurant. Secondly, people seek out food trucks. It’s not generally a “on a whim” decision to eat at a food truck. People follow them on Twitter and Facebook to find out where they’ll be so they can eat there. This is no different than someone saying “I want to eat at Squeal BBQ” and then looking up their address on the web and driving out there.

Similarly, if you’re heading out to the Warehouse District because you’re hungry, you have a restaurant in mind. If you’re planning on going to La Boca or Emeril’s or Cochon, you’re going to eat at La Boca, Emeril’s, or Cochon, regardless of the presence of a food truck. Not one single person with plans to eat at any of those places would see a food truck and say “Hm, you know, instead of eating a 5 star meal at a sit-down, table-service restaurant, I’ll eat this burrito handed to me out of a truck window and eat it on the curb on the side of the street.” NO ONE.

An argument I used in a discussion about this with my father, a Lakeview business owner, is this: Rouse’s on Carrollton and Bienville has been there for several years. They’re local and established. Being built directly across the street on Carrollton is a Winn-Dixie. They are a direct competitor to Rouse’s and are building a permanent business structure 500 feet away from Rouse’s. Winn-Dixie will be taking customers from Rouse’s. Yet, Winn-Dixie is well within their legal right to build there, no laws restrict how close to another grocery store they’re allowed to build, and in fact, the neighborhood associations over there actually okayed the development. 

Meanwhile, a food truck — a small business operated by locals that is on wheels and will never be near a competitor for more than a couple of hours — is not allowed to operate anywhere near a competitor and neighborhood associations are complaining about them and there are laws about where they can operate and how close to a competitor (restaurant) they can be.

How is this okay? How is it acceptable for Winn-Dixie to forever be poaching business from Rouse’s 500 feet away, but if a little food truck is that same distance from a restaurant for more than 45 minutes, they can be fined and ticketed? How many street corners have a gas station on them with another or two more built immediately across from them? How is this okay? How can Starbuck’s on Harrison Ave in Lakeview be four doors down from NOLA Beans, another coffee shop? Why do we accept without question a business’s right to build a permanent structure   nearly anywhere they’d like, as close to a competitor as they want, but when it comes to mobile businesses, we force them to be no where near other food businesses or anywhere near where tourists frequent?

Oh, except for one: Lucky Dog. Lucky Dog is a mobile food vendor, permitted to operate pretty much anywhere in the CBD and French Quarter, grandfathered in. Because tradition! Culture! Made up rules for things that are “Only in New Orleans!”

People complain that the existing food truck laws aren’t enforced, and I”d like to see how any of that is true. Taceaux Loceaux (from what I recall from Twitter posts) has been asked to move by NOPD, though they are diligent about staying within the law. In fact, they recently got asked to move from a legal spot on Howard Ave where they set up for lunch many times each week and did not complain one bit, even though they were well within their rights to be there. NOPD asked them to move because of all the Super Bowl hubbub.

What’s more, the existing laws aren’t even clear. It’s not clear whether laws like the 45 minute rule apply to food trucks, or just mobile produce and seafood vendors, for instance.

Finding any examples of food trucks taking business away from traditional restaurants is difficult. I’ve found dozens of articles with quotes from owners saying “Trucks will take away our customers” but nothing ever offers any sort of data or numbers to back it up. It’s all anecdotal.

I did find this article from San Francisco where the laws aren’t clear enough on how many food trucks can be gathered in one spot. A gathering of 5 or 6 food trucks was appearing two days a week across from an existing restaurant and that guy cited their lunch crowd was down by 75% (note: that’s crowd size, not income). I do think that food truck laws should be clear on how many food trucks should be able to congregate on any given street. Obviously if 5 food trucks are across from a sandwich shop, yeah, that guy will lose some business and has a right to complain.

Councilmember Stacey Head is pushing for some drastic changes in the laws, like changing the time limit from 45 minutes to 4 hours, distance from restaurants from 600 feet down to 50 feet, and allowing them to operate in some parts of the CBD.

Running a business is hard. Running a restaurant is harder. But isn’t one of the tenants of owning a business competition? Should the limits on food trucks be cut back some? Yes. Should some new rules be made? Yes. But to claim that food trucks are detrimental to other businesses is ridiculous.

I read one argument that I do actually agree with. If a food truck parks in the same spot, every day, from 10am to 4pm, that’s pretty much a permanent location. That’s definitely not a fair situation, as restaurateurs spend lots of time and money researching the best location for their business. But restricting food trucks to a time limit, say, 2 hours, and they can’t be in the same place two days in a row, I think would be a fair compromise. There won’t be any “permanent” food trucks, but they’d have a bit more freedom to operate.

It’s hard to believe that in a city renowned the world over for its food, that we’re stifling a relatively new and innovative style of food and eating. In a city that was built on fresh starts and boot-strapped entrepreneurs  we’re fighting new locally-owned businesses. It’s the classic tale of New Orleans: Not in My Back Yard.

Oh, sure, we love quirky things with silly names, but only the old quirky things with silly names. We love the idea of new things that happen in other cities, so long as we don’t have to look at them, or they’re not too close to our homes or businesses.

It feels to me that fighting the growth of the food truck industry in New Orleans is fighting the very essence of New Orleans upon which this great city was built and re-built. 

If you’d like to learn more about food trucks and the laws governing them, hit up the NOLA Food Trucks website and if you wanna sign a petition to get these laws changed (if you believe in petitions, anyway), check this one out.

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