Terrorist Attacks, Drugs and Danger: Why City Council Doesn't Want Food Trucks Downtown

Categories: News

City Council Food Trucks 003.jpg
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
The people are the city: A line of speakers queues at City Hall to sign up for a chance to speak at yesterday's public hearing on food truck regulations.
"Food trucks -- are they allowed to sell other items within the food trucks?" asked a bewildered-sounding Jack Christie, Council Member At Large 5, during Tuesday morning's City Council hearing on food truck regulations.

"To what extent does it not become a food truck?" Christie continued. "I realize there may be limitations on that -- on those items -- some legal...and some illegal." The audience in the chamber, many of them food truck owners themselves, started buzzing.

"Did he just insinuate that food trucks are selling drugs?" asked a woman to my right. That's what many audience members -- and local media -- seemed to gather from Christie's line of questioning, one of a long string that seemed to lose focus of the actual agenda item at the City Council hearing: a few minor deregulations that would allow food trucks to operate downtown as well as offer limited seating outside their units.

In fact, the changes to food truck regulations that City of Houston sustainability director Laura Spanjian proposed before a City Council meeting Tuesday were very simple:

  • Allow food trucks with propane tanks to operate downtown and in the Medical Center, as long as those propane tanks are less than 40 pounds.
  • Eliminate the minimum required space between food trucks, allowing them to park closer than 60 feet away from each other (remember how obnoxious it was to have so many food trucks spread out at Haute Wheels?).
  • Require that four or more food trucks parked in close proximity to one another have a fire safety officer on hand, for propane safety reasons.
  • Allow food trucks to provide three tables and six chairs outside of their units, as long as the seating is removed before the truck leaves.

These allowances are in place in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to New York City. As it currently stands, Houston is the only city that doesn't allow propane-equipped food trucks to operate downtown and one of the only cities that restrict their seating options.

City Council Food Trucks 006.jpg
A packed house could barely contain its laughter and heckling during the Council's statements.
Despite this, many City Council members seemed reluctant to listen to Spanjian's proposal -- several of them unhappy over having not been presented with the information prior to the hearing, although Spanjian had requested to meet with them beforehand -- and instead focused on questions that were off-topic or that made us wonder if they'd been fed to them by lobbyists opposed to food truck deregulation.

Between asking Spanjian bizarre questions about how many food trucks were "illegal," Council Member Mike Laster seemed intent on focusing on two things: the number of citywide food truck inspectors and the number of additional food truck permits the City could expect to see if the regulations were eased.

"Basically, there's just under a thousand mobile units that your three or four inspectors have to oversee on a day-to-day basis, is that correct?" Laster asked Spanjian, who had already made clear that there are actually more inspectors per food truck than there are inspectors per restaurant: The ratio is 313 to 1 for food trucks and 413 to 1 for restaurants.

That didn't prevent Laster or Council Member C.O. Bradford from continuing to harp on the three to four citywide food truck inspectors -- a number they didn't see as sufficient -- nor did it keep them from continually questioning the 40 pounds of propane that each truck would be allowed to keep on board.

"I'm concerned about safety issues as it relates to 40 pounds of propane per truck," said Bradford. "Forty pounds of propane per truck! But there's no limit to the number of trucks -- you could have 10 trucks lined up with 40 pounds of propane each -- is that correct?"

Those same propane tanks, argued Spanjian and a host of public speakers, are found on restaurant patios with heaters all over the city...including downtown restaurants. The tanks are perfectly safe when regulated and inspected, said Houston Fire Department Chief Joe Leggio, who assured the Council that his department's inspection program was rigorous.

5912829620_6f1f9dd841_z.jpg
Photo by Belal Khan
An example of the horrific kind of scene in Washington D.C. that Council Member Burks hopes to prevent in Houston.
More importantly, those same propane tanks -- in 20-pound quantities -- are found in backyard gas grills all over the city. Propane tanks are used to fuel food trucks across the nation, including in cities such as Washington D.C. and New York City, where public safety is of utmost importance. There have been a handful of incidents in which propane tanks exploded, but it's a small number -- and there's never been a propane explosion on a food truck in Houston.

Grease fires in restaurants, in fact, are far more common. As Kraftsmen owner Scott Tycer put it to the Council when he had his two minutes at the public podium, a grease fire in one of the downtown tunnel-level restaurants which vented up into the building above would be far more destructive. Council Member James Rodriguez, however, was keen to have the Chief Leggio expound upon what would happen if a propane tank exploded instead -- even though Leggio's description was based solely on video evidence, not first-hand experience.

The questions got even stranger when Council Member Andrew Burks began hinting at the possibility of terrorists using food trucks' propane tanks as weapons, a comment that prompted laughter from the audience.

5DII_8569_HP565.jpg
Photo by Groovehouse
Just look at that propane tank, ripe for a terrorist attack.
"Anything catastrophic like that could be a real hard damage and hard time for Houston, Texas or anywhere," commented Burks. "And you know that in the times which we live in, I think this is totally outrageous. I'm outraged by that. Because the reason is that in these times when people get bombed in embassy attacks and we put this type of bomb directly here in front of us and we know we could be causing trouble..."

More to the point, however, the Council seemed primarily concerned with the business and tax revenue impact of allowing food trucks downtown, which they saw as bringing undue competition as well as "danger" -- according to Burks -- to a part of the city that's already struggling for business.

Most City Council members aren't familiar with Houston's burgeoning food truck scene, and instead equate mobile food units with roving roach coaches that skirt the law and sell dirty food. Outdated ideas of food trucks aside, however, the biggest barrier to Spanjian's proposed changes was the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

The GHRA has actively lobbied against the proposed food truck changes, seemingly envisioning a dystopian future in which all brick-and-mortar restaurants have been displaced by Genghis Khan-style food truck hordes, masters of all they survey. It is anathema to them that food trucks and restaurants can co-exist peacefully side-by-side -- and even more anathema that food trucks (i.e., competition) can actually improve their business by bringing more foot traffic to quiet areas such as the streets of downtown Houston.

6039341220_9796e6f49b_z.jpg
Photo by Retailmania
According to Council Member Jack Christie, a giant corporation such as Whataburger would never be able to compete with a small, three-table food truck operation.
"Let's use Whataburger for an example," said Christie, attempting to explain his point of view on the possible "unfair" advantage trucks could have over restaurants. "Somebody has permission to go next door to the parking lot and -- you know -- Whataburger, if you put out tables and chairs gives them an unfair advantage to Whataburger because they pay rent, taxes, the whole deal. So I'm just wondering if there should be some limitations on tables and chairs."

One downtown restaurant owner told ABC-13's Miya Shay that they support the GHRA: "We depend on foot traffic," Frank's Pizza owner Debbie Love told Shay. "If people are walking four or five blocks to Frank's, and they see four or five food trucks along the way, obviously they have more options. We feel like it's going to really hurt our business."

Avi Katz, however, gave an impassioned example of how hosting food trucks in his parking lot didn't cannibalize his own food sales at Inversion -- the coffeehouse he runs in addition to his primary business, Katz Coffee -- but actually increased his overall sales as well as his public standing in the Montrose area. None of his neighbors -- commercial or residential -- ever complained about the trucks either, Katz noted during his turn at the podium.


Location Info

Frank's Pizza

417 Travis, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Inversion

1953 Montrose, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


Advertisement

My Voice Nation Help
113 comments
Stephenpgorman
Stephenpgorman

@radleybalko Someone said the same thing to the Washington, DC City Council about UBER drivers.

KyleHuckins213
KyleHuckins213

@radleybalko Betting Bloomberg convinceed them of this.

gl33p
gl33p

Weapons of Mass Convenience. Do food trucks pose an dire threat to the people of Houston? http://t.co/ABaldYwX /v @radleybalko

normative
normative

@radleybalko Obviously someone's seen Cheech & Chong's "Nice Dreams" too many times.

cwage
cwage

@radleybalko the grilled cheeserie's food qualifies as a drug, as far as I'm concerned

ScreaminMetal
ScreaminMetal

@radleybalko I would be severly pissed should someone screw with my Chili Dogs!!!!

Kitchen Incubator
Kitchen Incubator

David, part of the reason downtown business are struggling is because there are simply no people downtown after 6 pm. Part of the reason for this is because the emptiness of downtown streets makes people feel unsafe and part of it is because there simply is not enough to attract people to stay after the workday or bring in people on weekends. Additionally, downtown businesses tend to be rather archaic or corporate chains due to the high cost of doing business in the area and the large developer preference for proven concepts and large capital requirements. As a result, a neighborhood that has more architectural character and history than any other in Houston is left with commerce that does not do it justice. Food trucks represent the alternative. They bring people into the streets and encourage urban communities. They provide an invaluable attraction for events and can greatly assist bars, stores and coffee shops in attracting and retaining customers. One has only to look at other cities to understand that food trucks have served to create and add to vibrant urban business districts rather than hurt existing business. Your mentality is a threat to progress in our city, small business and entrepreneurship. Let us know what we can do to help educate people like you so you can understand! -- From a downtown business owner actively involved in the Downtown Business Association and downtown revitalization

artsie_lilly
artsie_lilly

Dear City Council: What is your problem? You don't sound 'reasonable' or thoughtful as you apparently think. I say "Yessssss!" this is what we want our city to look like"...free enterprise, people fulfillling their dreams of getting from out from under some ridiculous boss, making a living and something they "enjoy". It brings 'culture' and more choices, and we could use some 'affordable' gourmet type bites here. And 'gasp' YOU may even like what they are serving up. And please get with the times. If every other city in America, has despensed with propane laws, YOU can too.Geez. 

WholeHeartedMom
WholeHeartedMom

@HoustonHeights what is in their coffee? Sounds a bit too much.

My Virtual Neighbor
My Virtual Neighbor

We're looking forward to seeing everyone at the Food Truck Rally this afternoon.

adriennebyard
adriennebyard

@Bobby_Heugel @eatingourwords @mfuhouston that article was astonishing. I can't believe some of those things were said.

abOUTMagazine
abOUTMagazine

AbOUT Magazine- These elected officials are idiots!

gingerkmen
gingerkmen

We have petition sheets at Kraftsmen at the order counter for anyone who comes in!  We have already filled up countless. 

I wasnt sure if I wanted to run for city council after this because it is run by such morons or if I would just be too frustrated with their idiocy. 

gingerkmen
gingerkmen

That was some of the most RIDICULOUS stuff I have ever heard.  Unbelievable.   

Craigley
Craigley

Food trucks would kill downtown restaurants for sure.  

 

PRINT IT

kittenfc
kittenfc

@HoustonPress how are our elected officials so disconnected from real life? So aggravating!

del.martinis
del.martinis topcommenter

What is the problem with Houston?  Not just food truck regulations, but also strict control of neon signs in the theater district that makes it look like we don't even have one. I'm sure these council members have been to other thriving downtown's like Chicago, which enjoy all of these benefits! 

mcut1
mcut1

yet another example of the city leaders Gestapo on small business. What's happening here is the same old thing, by the same underhanded group of people (with the exclusion of a couple of council members).  The same people that bring you the sound and parking ordinances. Can we impeach? Or will we end up with Archstone and Perry homes along with strip centers and every restaurant owned by Taco Bell? Along with the Montrose Management Group ( which one of the council members is the Mayors partner) steam rolling us all? Wake up Houston!

hprocksoff
hprocksoff

@dustinprestige And a lame excuse too.

Blake Whitaker
Blake Whitaker

David Lee, part of owning a business is dealing with competition. Sometimes restaurants go out of business because consumers find something they like better. It's how the market works. By your logic we should also not allow any other brick and mortar places to open up, either, because that would take business away from the existing restaurants downtown. Doesn't make any sense at all.

mfsmit
mfsmit

@Bobby_Heugel @EatingOurWords @MFUHouston Council is siding with entrenched interests over small businesses and startups. Wonder why?$?

Catherine McQueen
Catherine McQueen

Shameful. What an embarrassment to Houston that this is even an issue.

traikman
traikman

@SalsaFrescaTaco Whew. I thought you were saying YES to the stadium. Great article!

jmkubica
jmkubica

 if you'll just help us stifle thise pesky food trucks  - we'll make it more than worth your while come election time. 

Loveats
Loveats

Another note:

 

Not all food trucks are trying to open restaurants i.e. Bernies Burger Bus and Waffle Bus.  And who's to say there might not be more multi unit food trucks.

 

Lets also look at the jobs restaurants create.  For each successful restaurant you can safely say each one employs at the very minimum 10-15 people.  A truck employs 3 tops.  Assuming the restaurants lose business due to trucks that potentially is 10-15 people who will lose their jobs.

radleybalko
radleybalko

The ONDCP put out a warning ad about it last year. RT @cwage the grilled cheeserie's food qualifies as a drug, as far as I'm concerned

JRCohen
JRCohen

@adriennebyard @Bobby_Heugel @EatingOurWords yeah, hearing it as it happened was SOMETHING I'll never forget.

Loveats
Loveats

 @gingerkmen I wouldnt want you on council...you shut down a few locations because of poor management.

 

Loveats
Loveats

 @Craigley in addition to killing other existing restaurants.  Then when those restaurants disappear you'll hear people complain why our downtown blows.

 

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

 @Loveats I'm not trying to be contrary, but rather suggesting a different point of view: which is that I think your opinion of food trucks might change drastically if you had a chance to sit down and talk with many of the owners. They're just as hard-working and keen to have downtown Houston succeed as I imagine you are. Part of this whole issue, I believe, is that the food trucks need to do a better job of reaching out to more restaurant owners, civic groups, neighborhood associations, etc. to allow people to understand their true aim in all of this. Most food trucks don't want to hurt anyone else's business -- they want to work side-by-side with restaurants (and, really, food trucks and restaurants are apples and oranges when you get right down to it) to improve Houston's food scene overall. Maybe you could come out to the rally on Sunday and get to know a few of them?

Wendy
Wendy

 @Loveats This is ridiculous. Show me one person who will suddenly begin eating only at food trucks and never again at a restaurant. Just like any other eatery, it depends on what your potential customers want to eat, how much they want to spend, and how much time they have. This isn't the same as one pizzeria losing business to another one--what you're saying is similar to stating that an upscale restaurant will absolutely go out of business because there's a McDonald's next door. I can't speak for other people who work downtown, but there are days when my husband would rather sit down and eat (especially if he's eating with others) and there are days when he just wants something quick. If restaurants are losing business to food trucks, I think there's something else they need to look at.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Loveats A typical food truck employs more than 3 people, but anyway that assumes that the food truck is feeding as many people as the restaurant feeds. Do you really think that's true? Do you really think any food truck is serving as many customers in a week as, say, Frank's Pizza? Go check it out on a packed Friday or Saturday night.

Anse
Anse

@Loveats It's funny that this pro-business city has people who are suddenly concerned about competition. If food trucks don't belong downtown, I reckon they can figure that out pretty easily by not getting any business. I don't see how we can say we want to encourage downtown development, and then throw up obstacles to a group of businesses that very much want to operate downtown.

gingerkmen
gingerkmen

 @Loveats

 Um *I* did not have anything to do with shutdowns.  Since *I* have been here, this company has improved immensely, and *I* have helped turn this Heights cafe completely around. We would love to have you in to try it out.

Anse
Anse

@Loveats @Craigley I went to Portland, OR earlier this summer. Tons of food trucks. Too many, really. But amazingly enough, there were a whole lot of restaurants, too, and they didn't appear to be hurting for business. This whole line of reasoning is stupid.

del.martinis
del.martinis topcommenter

 @ShitThrowingMonkey If you've ever been to New York, it's what makes it what it is.  Yes, flashy and colorful, as theater often is.  

Loveats
Loveats

 @Wendy You forget these food trucks are serving gourmet food similar to some fine dining restaurants.  Who would have thought you could get bone marrow out of a truck?  LIke stated, doesnt take much change to swing the pendulum to less favorable conditions.  This holds especially true with the restaurant industry.

 

I never said they would solely eat from the trucks...the point is that enough people start frequenting the trucks the less business there is to distribute to other fixed stores. 

Loveats
Loveats

 @Kylejack What you have failed to do is look at the economics of a brick and mortar restaurant.  It doesnt take much to put a restaurant on hard times.  98% of restaurants have extremely thin margins from which to make money.  A small decrease of patrons goes a very long ways.

 

Loveats
Loveats

Do you actually think food trucks are going to aid in the development of downtown?  They are mobile food trucks..not permanent fixtures.  They will roll in, sell their product then head out to the next location.  Their only interest is the lunch service in downtown.   Thats the only time when you have thousands of people in downtown at the same time.

Anse
Anse

@Loveats Man, if your restaurant serves good food with good service, why in the heck should you worry about a food truck? How is a food truck going to challenge your business in a way that other restaurants won't? You know as well as I do that this doesn't make any sense. Besides that, there are plenty of reasons why you might prefer a restaurant to a food truck. This is beyond ridiculous.

Loveats
Loveats

 How do you know they werent hurting for business?  Did you see the P&L statements?  Some are backed by investor groups who can float restaurants.  It doesnt mean they are doing well.

del.martinis
del.martinis topcommenter

 @ShitThrowingMonkey Maybe so, now that you mention Dallas LOL!  Possibly well lit electronic billboards.  LED is too bright.  Anything that gives you a sense of a place and lights up the Theater District ...

ShitThrowingMonkey
ShitThrowingMonkey

 @del.martinis Been there a few times for work and for play, and will go back.  I'm open to ideas but don't think neon is a fit.  Neon is so Dallas.

SirRon
SirRon

You people are crazy. What exactly is wrong with @Loveats  dictating what types of businesses should succeed? It's food! This dude's name is "Love" "Eats". He's got this. Chill out y'all.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Loveats You can't get Mexican-Korean fusion at any restaurant in town that I'm aware of, but that's what Coreanos is selling. The Modular is also pushing the envelope, making East Coast quality ramen. Nobody in town is putting in those kind of hours on making ramen stock as it takes all day to make.As to sanitation, they're inspected periodically by the city and have to check in at the commissary 24 hours before serving. They get citations and fines just like restaurants. This issue, of course, is completely divorced from the regulation changes that are being proposed.

Loveats
Loveats

 @Kylejack Name one food truck that is serving food you cant get at any restaurant?  Waffe Bus...yeah i can get that at a restaurant, korean food...check, hot dogs...check, pizza...check.  I personally think trucks are an eyesore and how sanitized can these trucks really be.  Its over 100 degrees in those trucks and these cooks are sweating everywhere.  They are constantly opening their doors leaving the "kitchen" exposed to the elements.  We might as well let vendors set up at the local bbq pits in parks.  There really isnt any difference.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Loveats For the entrepreneur, it allows someone to sell their product for a lower investment cost. There's some creative people out there who don't have half a million to drop on a restaurant buildout. For the consumer, it gives them more options, and lets them try food that maybe hasn't found a way to deliver in an established brick & mortar.It won't appeal to everyone. Some will still want to sit in an air-conditioned restaurant. Some don't like the idea of buying from a truck. That's fine. The market can decide.

Loveats
Loveats

 @Kylejack What is the allure of food trucks in the first place?  I have yet to get a clear reasonable answer from anyone who visits them.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Loveats Maybe we should ban all restaurants from downtown except for one, so that one restaurant has maximum chance for success. Maybe we should ban food trucks from the entire city if we fear them competing with restaurants.Why do some businesses deserve special protection over others?

wombatbbq
wombatbbq

 @Loveats They need written consent to park on private lots. This also means they are told where and when they can park in those spots. It's not like if they got the ok to serve downtown, they would be able to park anywhere and steal business. Food trucks have been known to work with businesses, not against them. They've been able to increase profit with the places they work near.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Loveats If you think trucks have it so easy, why doesn't everyone who owns a restaurant just switch to a truck? Seems to me that there are advantages to both.

Loveats
Loveats

 @arrodiii Downtown restaurants cant get up and move like a truck.  Trucks cash in on lunch rush and then burn out to the next hot spot.  I'd like to see the restaurants downtown load it up and move out like that daily.  You just reinforced my point.

arrodiii
arrodiii

 @Loveats

 Considering that most downtown restaurants cater only to lunchtime crowds, I don't see how food trucks using the same strategy is any worse off.

Loveats
Loveats

 @Kylejack Come on now...thats not true.  I used to work in downtown and even though i didnt always walk outside the tunnels i knew what restaurants were around me.  A food truck isnt going to make me more willing to eat somewhere else.

 

 

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @Loveats Sure, they'll improve pedestrian traffic. Many who work in downtown either bring a sack lunch or head straight for the tunnels. Getting people back on the surface lets them notice restaurants they maybe forgot about, like Ziggy's, Frank's, Market Square Bar & Grill, etc.

Now Trending

From the Vault

 

Loading...