Moveable Feasts: Food Trucks on Main Street

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Food trucks are all the rage from Los Angeles to New York City.  But what if you’re a smaller or midsized community and suddenly food trucks are knocking on your door, asking about your regulations?  What do you do?  How do you handle it?  The food truckers want a simple, easy, quick way to open shop and start selling their delicious wares.  Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy, quick way to get food trucks operating in your city, while complying with all the laws for health and safety needs that must be met.  Denton, Texas, has recently gone through about a year of research, public input and public hearings to allow food trucks.

Denton, Texas is a city of 117,000, located north of Dallas and Fort Worth; both are about 30 miles away.  Denton has been listed in the top 10 fastest-growing cities (over 100,000 population) in the U.S. for more than a decade.  There are two state universities in Denton: the University of North Texas (UNT) and Texas Woman’s University (TWU; they enroll more than 50,000 students each semester.

Downtown is booming.  In the first six months of 2013, we’ve had 13 new businesses open and only two close.  Currently, there are six projects in the process of remodeling and renovating. We have 60 bars, restaurants, and live music venues downtown which are frequented by a variety of folks, from college students to retirees.

In 2009, I first began getting inquiries about why we didn’t allow food trucks in Denton.  The answer was, we did—sort of.  Our ordinance allowed for mobile units, but they could only park in one spot for 15 minutes at a time before they were required to move.  Commonly known as “roach coaches,” these units usually serviced construction sites.

Food vendors regularly set up at UNT, Lowe’s and Home Depot because they had the permission of the owners and access to restrooms and hand-washing facilities.
Several city council members were interested in allowing the new gourmet food trucks that were popping up in Fort Worth and Dallas, so I began to research ordinances, checking Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Austin, Texas.  I passed this information on to the Code Enforcement Department, as the current food ordinance is enforced by the Health Department.  I continued to attend meetings, as most of the food trucks wanted to be in the downtown area.

SOTW_FridayNiteBitesPoster_DentonTXIn October, 2012, we held an event, Friday Nite Bites: A Foodie Truck Festival.  Despite the fact that the wind blew in 30-mile-an-hour gusts and the temperature was in the mid-30s, we had a large turnout.  Approximately 2,000 people came to eat at nine trucks.  The event started at 5 p.m.; by 5:45, the lines stretched across the parking lot.  People with children quickly figured out that it was going to take an hour to get to the front of the lines and headed up the hill to other restaurants.  All the downtown restaurants had record nights from the overflow from the festival.  By 9 p.m. all the trucks had run out of food.

Despite the fact that this one event worked out well for both the downtown restaurants and the food trucks, the bricks-and-mortar eateries were still leery of mobile food vendors.  It seems that  the public loves the idea of food trucks and wants to see them downtown while restaurants don’t want food trucks anywhere near them.

The city council adopted the Food and Food Services Establishment Ordinance amendments on November 6, 2012. They agreed to review the ordinance within six months. Public meetings that included residents as well as restaurant and food truck owners showed that the following issues have come up in the first six months:

Proximity to existing restaurants: It is now required that food trucks be in an area that is zoned for restaurants. However, the owners of the bricks-and-mortar (B & M) restaurants believe that the investment they have made in improvements and taxes are greater than that of food trucks so the trucks should not be allowed in the same area.

Commissary: Food trucks are required to check into a commissary for cleaning and restocking every 24 hours. There currently isn’t a commissary in Denton (the closest one is in Fort Worth,  making it difficult for the trucks to make a 70- mile round trip every day to comply.  The Health Department’s concern is that the trucks be as clean as possible. The trucks would like the commissary check-in requirements changed from once a day to once a week.

Grease disposal: Food trucks are required to dispose of grease at an approved commissary.  Should they be allowed to have a grease barrel, like bricks-and-mortar restaurants? If so, who polices that aspect to make sure they dispose of grease in an acceptable manner?

Parking when not in use: The current rules do not allow a food truck to be parked at the owner’s house or in the driveway. Owners want to have their trucks nearby, so they can keep an eye on them.

Itineraries:  Food trucks are required to file their itinerary with the health department 48 hours in advance. The owners want to be able to move to another location on the spur of the moment if business is slow.  City staff needs to be able to review the itineraries to determine zoning, setbacks, and parking.

Annual permits: Food trucks are required to have an annual permit and be inspected by the Health Department.  The Fire Department also checks the truck's commercial kitchen hood for fire suppression equipment before the permit is issued. This regulation is the same for B & M restaurants. 

Sales tax: B & M restaurants want the city to audit the sales tax records of food trucks to verify that Denton is receiving its fair share of tax revenue.

Certified Food Manager (CFM): One person on duty must have completed the CFM course through the City of Denton. This requirement is the same for B & M restaurants. 

SOTW_FoodTrucksParked_DentonTXParking on public property:  Food trucks are not allowed to set up in parks or on city or county property unless they are invited as part of a special event. Trucks would like to park in city and county parking lots near downtown to capture foot traffic. Many food vendors do this after hours, even though it’s against the rules. We now have an inspector who works from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights to monitor social media and try to stop this activity. The bottom line is about the legality of allowing a business to operate on city/county property for personal profit without compensation to the property owners.

Special events: Some food trucks park near a major special event or festival and “piggy-back” on the event without paying the special event fee. The organizers of these festivals spend a lot of time and money promoting their events. They support these events by charging fees. By piggy-backing across the street, the vendor receives all the benefit of the event without supporting its continuation.

SOTW_TuesdayFoodTruckCrowd_DentonTXA couple of other tips that I picked up at the National Main Streets Conference in New Orleans was to make sure you have an exit strategy for your food trucks. If the food trucks create enough buzz in an area, developers will be interested in the property for more permanent businesses. Make sure you have the option to move the trucks to the next underdeveloped area you want to promote. 

The other point is not to count on food trucks becoming B & M restaurants. There are a few success stories; but, for the most part, this doesn’t turn out to be the case.  The food truck business is difficult, much like opening a B & M restaurant. Considering that food trucks usually make each order as it comes in and have a limited staff, there isn’t as much money to be made as some might think.

Although we are having some growing pains with this process, Denton is making progress, and accommodating mobile food vendors will be a good thing for the community. The more variety in dining options we have, the more people we can attract to the area. Diversity is what makes us stronger and more attractive to our customers.

Visit our Solution Center to download a copy of sample Food Truck Ordinances from Denton, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts, and Lincoln, Nebraska. If you have sample ordinances or other information you would like to share, please email us at mainstreet@savingplaces.org.