Salt Lake City Food-Truck Regulations in the Air? 

Keep truckin': Mobile food vendors hope changes to regulations will allow more vending downtown.

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Julie Sheehan cooks out of and drives Torta Truck, her Italian-food business that she started in November, a few months after Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker gave public assurances that the city’s food-truck ordinances would be loosened. Those ordinances are under review now, but Sheehan is frustrated there hasn’t been more progress. Indeed, Chow Truck, another food truck, was recently told by the city that it can no longer park at Gallivan Center, one of that business’s most lucrative parking locations.

“I know that SuAn [Chow, owner of Chow Truck,] is going downtown more than I am right now. Actually, knowing that [SuAn] has had a hard time with the city, I haven’t really explored [operating there],” Sheehan says. “There’s places downtown I would love to go. … It’s a frustration, and I’ve learned a lot in watching what the Chow Truck has gone through. In other cities, [mobile food vendors] are all over downtown.”

Chow Truck often parks in a pull-out on Gallivan Avenue. KUTV’s news trucks are authorized to park there, and they gave permission to Chow Truck to park there occasionally, as well. But Chow Truck recently started getting parking tickets from Salt Lake City despite that permission.

“I’ve been told KUTV does not have authorization to give permission for anyone other than media trucks to park on their strip,” Chow says. “The only thing that can be [done] is for the city to change its ordinances for food trucks. I can’t get anywhere near downtown the way the ordinances are currently structured.”

Salt Lake City’s small-business economic-development director, Dan Velazquez, calls Chow “a pioneer” for her outspoken advocacy of food trucks and city reforms. In June 2010, Chow complained about ordinances that require food trucks to stay in one location for only two-hour stints, even if they’re on private property. Chow began lobbying the city for changes, and on January 11, Chow’s persistence resulted in a mobile-business discussion at a Salt Lake City Planning Commission meeting. In particular, Chow wants changes to the two-hour limit and also a system of granting food trucks access to park and vend on public roads and parks.

Relative to numerous Salt Lake City food carts—which are regulated separately—there are very few food trucks in Salt Lake City. Carts pay a fee for assigned spots on specific street corners and are not subject to the two-hour time limit. Trucks, which require more space than the carts, can’t apply for a specific spot and, Chow says, are virtually locked out of operating on any public spaces. Trucks and carts, just like restaurants, must get business insurance, comply with food safety rules, etc.

“Part of the direction for the planning commission was to go out and revisit ordinances in places where [food truck regulations] are very successful,” Velazquez says.

Portland, Ore., for example, has more than 450 mobile food vendors and has seen a 40 percent increase in vendors since studying the industry and revising the regulations two years ago. That city’s research shows that mobile food vendors “have positive impacts on street vitality and neighborhood life in lower-density residential neighborhoods as well as in the high-density downtown area.” Portland’s research has also noted that mobile food vending businesses are a significant entry to business ownership for women, minorities and immigrants.

Other cities have responded to food carts differently. According to Portland’s research, Los Angeles County changed its regulations so that mobile food vendors had to move operations once every hour, drastically reducing viability of the business model in that city. That was partly in response to complaints from fixed-location restaurants that said the mobile vendors—with significantly lower overhead than restaurants—present unfair competition.

Melva Sine, the CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, says her organization is watching the city closely to ensure any new regulations are fair.

Food trucks, food carts and restaurants, for example, should have equal requirements for food safety and similar fees, she says. Sine says the city must implement regulations, however, that would prevent, say, an Italian-food truck from parking outside an Italian-food restaurant. “Any regulation developed is going to give them a defined area where they can or can’t go,” Sine says. “We have a farmers market. A lot of people like them, but we don’t put them outside a competing facility. … In terms of competition, [food trucks] are going to have to be a reasonable [distance] away from anyone in the competitive marketplace, just like food carts presently.”

But, she says, Salt Lake City is growing and becoming more metropolitan. As a result, there’s a market for food on-the-go from food carts and trucks that wasn’t there before. “It’s a big marketplace, and everybody playing on a level playing field is what we want to work toward.”

In Portland, many mobile food vendors congregate on “brown fields,” or lots that are undeveloped or blighted. Chow says the challenge she faces is that downtown Salt Lake City has so few unused spaces that are close to customers. Scouting new locations for the trucks, she says, is a full-time job unto itself.

“I’ve been trying to find a location where I could park the truck that has visibility and accessibility to people downtown,” she says, “and it’s really a challenge.”

Chow maintains there’s a thriving food-cart industry just waiting to burst in Salt Lake City. “There’s not many of us out there, but there are certainly a lot of people who want to be out there. I get e-mails on a weekly basis and sometimes multiple times per week, from people wanting information, wanting to know what’s going on and wanting to do a truck themselves.”

Sheehan, of the Torta Truck, says the situation is frustrating, and expressed some regret about starting her business in Salt Lake City as opposed to another city where the food-truck industry—and regulations—are more established. “Food trucks are new to Salt Lake. Sometimes, it takes a little while to get things changed,” she says. “Things can’t change overnight. I understand that.”

Chow is negotiating for special permits or a temporary waiver of the food-truck location and twohour regulations while they are under review, but does not know if she’ll be back to Gallivan. That disappoints customers like Ellesse Hargreaves. She ordered lunch from Chow Truck March 31—the business’s last day on Gallivan Avenue—and was disappointed Chow Truck may not be back—at least not for awhile. “I look forward to Thursdays when it’s here,” she says. “It’s a shame. This is a perfectly good street.”

Click here to find Torta Truck or Chow Truck.

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