The State of Columbus Mobile Food: A Resolution for 2013

24 Dec

What does the world of mobile food have in store for our city in 2013? We know from the past year there will be more vendors and more places that seek their services. There will be more events large and small. No surprises there.

The mystery for the new year, is what direction our city government will take in their approach to kitchens on wheels. The rise of mobile food has taken the city somewhat off guard as several departments struggle on how to license and permit these vendors. The interpretation of existing regulations has frequently been inconsistent and unclear.

Many in the city have embraced the rise of mobile food for the diversity it brings to our menu choices as well as the attention it brings to Columbus as the mobile food capital of Ohio and the Midwest. A recent article by Joe Vargo from Experience Columbus showcases what we have to be proud of -> read this

However the path to glory has not been without many speed bumps as well as some hurt feelings and profit margins. Since the Taco Truck community sprouted in 2001, it has faced reservations from citizens and public servants. In the mainstream mobile world – which has exploded since 2010, two very popular vendors have faced significant gridlock, frustration and miscommunication with the powers that be – Ray Ray’s Hog Pit and (the now defunct) Yerba Buena.

The city has different regulations for each type of vendor: food truck, food cart and food trailer. The guidelines for food carts are relatively clear based in rules created based on challenges in the 1980’s. However – the rules that do, don’t or might not apply to trucks and trailers have been an area of confusion, which was exacerbated by the rise of mobile food in our communities. In the last few months’ positive steps have been taken to address these areas of concern read here and here.

More work is needed to create guidelines that are clear and reasonable for vendors while being easy to administer and sustainable by the city departments charged with permitting, licensing and enforcing rules for mobile vendors.

Currently, the Columbus Department of Public Health gets good marks from the mobile community for having easily understood guidelines and being responsive to questions from mobile vendors. The department has led an initiative to create a guide that includes all the requirements from each involved department (public safety, fire, zoning, and etc.) for each type of vendor: cart, truck and trailer. The guide would list the contact person in each department, the relevant regulations and fees and cite the regulations that apply to the vendor and where to find the full regulations for review. The goal is to have this resource ready by March 2013.

However there is a bit of a snag. The Department of Public Safety revised some guidelines in August that were initially interpreted as being more restrictive of mobile vendors. One of the primary causes of concern is the interpretation that each vendor and each employee of that vendor must obtain a peddlers permit. The cost of the permit is about $150 and can take up to thirty days to issue. For vendor who employs several full time, part-time and contingent employees this is a significant financial and logistical burden. For those of you in small business can you imagine the costs you would have to have to pay that amount of money for each employee before they work one day….and if they stay having to pay that fee again each year? What about for employees that only work one day or that you need next week not thirty days from now? Another section is interpreted as requiring a promoter license for each vendor? This causes confusion since being a peddler and a promoter seems to be somewhat exclusive (or redundant depending on whom you speak to) and of course it is an extra fee. A final area of consternation is where can mobile vendors park? The interpretation of the wording of the August regulations is no parking of any kind on any street. This is in conflict with statements and interpretations from several agencies in the past.

In July of this year the city and Experience Columbus worked with some food trucks to supplement food options for a convention that was considering renewing it’s commitment to come to Columbus. In the preceding year, there was a complaint about not having enough food options to feed visitors in a timely manner to get them back to their seminars because neighboring restaurants were closed on Mondays or too far of a walk away. The food trucks were recruited to address this concern to assist feeding the conventioneers quickly. In the past, food trucks were allowed to serve from a bagged meter (which required the Department of Public Safety’s oversight and review). Although there was no impact to safety or parking the bagged meter permits were denied. It was an opportunity to gain revenue for the city in fees and make some convention goers happy and possibly more likely to renew their commitment to the convention center and lock in choosing our city to spend money in. The loss of the bagged metered parking was not known until the last-minute however the food trucks kept their commitment, showed up and parked in the worst possible place. Because of the undesirable set up location they served about 20 people. It was frustrating for all involved.

To learn more about some of the frustrations vendors struggle with – click -> here to view a good video documentary on our food truck culture.

The city is being proactive and has gathered a group of stakeholders to create what is hoped to be the most progressive mobile food guidelines in the country. Our city and our government has the ability to do that. The challenge is to do so in a reasonable period of time – which is not one year or six months. This needs to be signed, sealed and delivered by March of 2013. Why this timeframe? Because this is when the major licensing, permitting and inspection period starts for the next season in the city. To wait longer would be a disservice to those that are creating or revising business plans for the new year and it would promote procrastination something seen too often in public service and decision-making.

These are a few significant community concerns that need to be resolved to please the many communities that have a stake in these discussions.

1) Parking on the streets. Some restaurant owners are concerned that a mobile vendor may park in front of their business and take business away. Some retail store owners are concerned that a truck parked on the street or at a meter near their business can block customers looking to find a place to park near by or block their signage from being seen from street level. From a mobile vendor perspective – most want to set up where there are a lot of people but not a lot of food options – so parking in near a restaurant does not make sense to the majority. However, parking near a brewery or business that would benefit from the foot traffic draw of “food trucks” does click.

2) Overnight parking. Some trailers and trucks stay in one place to serve the public in order to develop a regular and steady customer base. The Department of Public Health guidelines state that mobile vendors must move every forty days. For zoning the interpretation is every day. The negative impact of a business of moving daily was best shown in circumstances of Jaime Anderson and Ray Ray’s. While there was no health or safety need to move daily the interpretation is there but it is enforced inconsistency. Is this reasonable? Would moving once per week or not being able to be on site more than three days in a row serve the same purpose?

3) There is a perception by some that mobile food vendors have an unfair advantage over other businesses – these businesses would disagree with that contention. The start-up costs are smaller than their brick and mortar peers but the hard work is not and the challenges of being a kitchen on wheels are not for the faint of heart or light of funds. A broken window puts a food truck out of business until it is fixed – a restaurant can go on. Bathrooms are a great thing to have whether you are a customer or an employee. Being able to move from a bad spot to a good one is easy for a truck but impossible for a restaurant. There are pros and cons to both models but the common issues for both styles of food service far outweigh the differences. We need small businesses to grow and the challenges both styles face with some city government departments is daunting.

4) In an area that will not be named but is north of downtown and south of campus, there has been significant push back on mobile vendors in the neighborhood – even on private property. There is some cause for this. There is one cart vendor that is notorious for poor behavior and sanitation and he has been a concern for years. He is the exception to the rule and can be dealt with by using existing codes. There was one incident of an unlicensed vendor getting into a scuffle with a police officer – that business was shut down to the satisfaction of all. However the concerns of the area is that this rogue food cart brought rats and trash and possibly homeless individuals to the surrounding area. One rotten vendor in the very large apple cart of mobile vending could not create all of that community carnage.

So the question is this: Will Columbus rise to the challenge? One councilwoman believes we will.

The bonus question: What changes do you want to see?

Note: This editorial represents the views of only one of the Street Eats Team, this does not represent the views of an entity, group, organization or other body – just one individual. Where information might not be fully objective – it is still well-reasoned, insightful and worth consideration.


One Response to “The State of Columbus Mobile Food: A Resolution for 2013”

  1. Scott Burch January 19, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Thanks for the info. Having fantasized about starting a crepe cart back in 1998 after seeing sandwich wraps take off, knowing the much older European counterpart is sooo much better, I have detailed my fantasy over the years but knew the nit-grit was missing. Thanks for distilling it down and opening my eyes – though now I wonder if the market isn’t saturated.

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