Thursday, March 25, 2010

Back the Food Truck Up.... (Bumped and Updated)

Over at Wine Me, Dine Me, Julie posts a press release issued by the operators of the food trucks that have recently sprouted up in Cincinnati. Apparently, the trucker-chefs are concerned that City Council is going to act to regulate the trucks. In their defense, Tom Acito, who owns Cafe de Wheels, says, "Our goal of being a mobile restaurant isn’t to steal business from local restaurants in the Over-the-Rhine and downtown areas. Rather, we hope to situate ourselves in areas where we will not directly compete with independent restaurant owners."

As far as I can tell, the trucker-chefs' concerns are fueled by John Curp's comment to Polly Campbell that "it's safe to say that the city is looking into the issue to see if there's need for additional regulations."

I'm not certain that Acito is really serious about not competing with local restaurants. Cafe de Wheels' typical lunchtime spot is on Walnut just off of Court Street. Assuming the truck stays there, it will definitely compete with Avril-Bleh's sidewalk grill, which is set to re-open April 5.

But more importantly, the trucks' primary competitors are not restaurants. After all, if you own a restaurant and find yourself at a competitive disadvantage to a guy who cooks his food in a UPS truck, it may be time to find a new profession. Instead, the trucks are really competing with sidewalk vendors.

The vendors are, of course, regulated by the city. And the trucker-chefs don't want to be. My question: is that fair? Sidewalk vendors run a pretty low-margin business. They are licensed by the City, and their location is subject to City approval. (In fact, the City has recently adopted a lottery through which street vendors' locations will be determined. This was first mentioned last year in a Jane Prendergast blog post. The HamCo Common Pleas Court recently issued a temporary restraining order delaying implementation of the new system. If I can find the complaint, I'll write a post on this issue.)

I know that the food trucks are the current darlings of the "cool kids" in the blogosphere. I like them (the trucks), too. (You haven't really lived until you've had Cafe de Wheels' grilled cheese and pulled pork sandwich.) But I wonder: why is it fair that the food trucks operate outside the rules that everyone else has to play by? Will a licensing fee and some rules about their location really put them out of business? Or would those things just put them on a level playing field with their competitors?

Finally, can anyone speak with certainty as to what Council committee would tackle this issue? I assume it's the Livable Communities Committee, chaired by Roxanne Qualls, but I'm not sure under the 2010 committee structure.

UPDATE (3/25/2010): Polly Campbell has this blog post on the topic, in which she quotes Tom Acito as saying that he and fellow trucker-chefs aren't presently petitioning the city. I'm not sure why he sent Julie a press release heralding the formation of his not-yet-formed group, then.

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