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A Long Day's Journey into Food Truck Deregulation

 La Cocinita
La Cocinita
Photo: Facebook

If you fell into a state of suspended animation last July and napped through the ensuing seven months of news about food truck regulation in New Orleans, we have great news: you haven't really missed anything. The push to either regulate or deregulate mobile vendors is still ongoing, in the chambers of City Hall, on the blocks around Oretha Castle Haley and St. Claude, and among some obstinate business people in the CBD.

After finding themselves shoehorned into Chapter 110 of the City's code regulating "itinerant food vendors" such as Lucky Dog carts and flower salespeople, mobile vendors like La Cocinita's Rachel Billow and Taceaux Loceaux's Alex del Castillo began leading the charge to ameliorate the City's 50-year-old mobile vending laws so that more food trucks could get rolling. Untangling this ball of yarn has, however, proved difficult, more difficult than even City Councilwoman Stacy Head, a reliable advocate for food trucks, could have guessed. Speaking to the Times-Pic's Bruce Eggler after presenting the third version of her ordinance to increase the number of permits available to mobile vendors and expand the areas where they can operate, Head expressed her surprise at the difficulty she's encountered helping to ease some of the food truck restrictions:

I thought it was a no-brainer, but it has been exceedingly difficult. I didn't think it would take nine months to do just this tiny little section.

With the up or down vote looming on April 18, Cm. Head seems confident that the food trucks will be able to roll more freely, though she echoed her earlier frustration with the way the debate has dragged on:

This has been going on for almost a year. We're over nine months into this discussion. My hope is that we go ahead and move forward, and that we vote on it up or down?and the amendments are voted on up or down on the 18th. I feel good about it. I feel like there are very few people who are opposed to food trucks at all, very, very few. Most people have concerns that can be resolved, and I think most of the Council is supportive of it. I'm not sure exactly of the positions of some of my colleagues as to what amendments they'll be moving forward with and whether those will be amendments that will harm efforts to increase the number of food trucks in New Orleans, but I think it's [the latest proposal] going to pass, and I think it's going to pass on the 18th.

Rachel Billow of La Cocinita had been a city politics greenhorn before embarking on what initially seemed like a self-evident effort to ease some of the restrictions that had been choking both current and prospective food truck operators. Nearly a year after the first food truck symposium, however, she sounds more like a weary political veteran:

I've never been involved with city politics before, and I'm told that the food truck changes are happening at lightning speed in the scope of New Orleans politics. I'm not from here, so I don't really know if that's true, but it's been a long process. I thought that it'd be pretty straight forward. My biggest concern with the pilot program is that it can all be changed again in a year if, shockingly, we find that food trucks are somehow not good for the city. There's an opportunity to regulate further, and it will happen by default.

I thought it'd be this quick process, but that was obviously inaccurate. I feel like it's been this long process of trying to discuss with each council member what their concerns are and figuring out what might be a good compromise between what they might say is preposterous and what we think is fair.

In just under a week, the City Council will vote on a proposal that looks something like this: the number of new food truck permits (part of a one-year pilot program) will be reduced from 100 to 75; mobile vendors will be able to stay in one place for up to four hours; operators would have to hold at least $500,000 in commercial general liability insurance; operators would have to prove they have access to a commercial or public restroom within 300 feet of any location they're operating in; and food trucks would have to park at least 100 feet away from any part of a brick and mortar restaurant they're operating near, a drastic reduction from the current distance limit of 600 feet.

The Louisiana Restaurant Association's pushback against the Ch. 110 overhaul in late January complicated what seemed like a relatively straightforward effort to free up small business owners from regulations governing midcentury hot dog and cut-flower trundlers. More opposition came from CBD residents and business owners such as Cassandra Sharpe, George Schmidt, and Reuben Laws III. Op-ed outpourings of food truck support as well as measured ambivalence followed. Somehow, in the midst of what was turning into a Great Food Truck Debate, food truck deregulation transformed (for some observers) from a small business issue to a barometer of New Orleans' shifting demographics. Increasing the number of food truck permits wasn't going to be as innocuous as serving tacos and empanadas to hungry office workers in the CBD?it was going to transfer the reins of power and influence in New Orleans into the hands of hipster colonial outsiders who'd ignore the city's unique cultural legacy and transform it into a glittering New Portlandia. Jules Bentley immediately drew accusations of paranoia and xenophobia with his lightning-rod food truck Philippic in Antigravity last March, but, amid shadowy allusions to a Koch Brothers capitalistic coup in New Orleans, he echoed a crisis of identity that has troubled New Orleanians since 2005: will the city retain its unique character in an increasingly homogenized, interconnected world, where hip cultural trends from media strongholds like Los Angeles and New York replicate themselves like viruses? In an email to me, he further explained his preoccupation with the influx of so-called "outsiders":

I do think post-K we've seen a lot of people with hidden agendas-- usually self-promotion-- way too eager to tell the rest of the world about what New Orleans is, what New Orleans needs, and what New Orleans means. So, the day I'm bloviating about what's authentic or who's New Orleanian will be the day I've absolutely lost my way. That said, people who approach New Orleans without humility, without the deference she's due-- people who come here to talk and tell, rather than to listen and learn-- aggravate the hell out of me.

beignet4%3A12.jpg Beignet Roule [Photo: Facebook]

However, not all of the city's food truckers are outsiders. Operators like Paul LeBourgeois of Beignet Roule are homegrown culinary talents who, like a long of aspiring young restaurateurs, is using the truck he runs with partner Derrick Fontenot to gain a foothold in the tenuous restaurant industry, where making an investment in a brick-and-mortar location is often a losing gamble. "If some of the current restrictions remained in place," says LeBourgeois, who obtained his permit just this past February, "doors to the industry would close for people like me."

Besides, New Orleans is nothing if not a macadam of wildly different cultures, all layered on top of one another generation after generation. Part of city's great appeal to its steady stream of visitors and immigrants, says Jessie Wightkin, a Taceaux Loceaux employee and culinary arts instructor at NOCCA, is that a good meal at a fair price isn't a phenomenon here?it's an essential part of New Orleans' identity:

One of the most beautiful parts of the food culture of New Orleans is that you can spend $100 dollars on an incredible meal and you can spend $10 and have some damn good eats in this town. I also see New Orleans as having a progressive culinary culture and the resistance to the trucks is super contradictory of that. We serve a lot of chefs at our truck and I think the restaurants that see a truck as a threat need to up their game.

Food truck culture is a beautiful way for a chef to test out their vision and get their name out. It shouldn't be political. It's in the best interest of the city to support these entrepreneurs and protect them the same way they protect restaurants. The change is coming, what's the hold up?

The hold up comprises an outdated series of regulations, bureaucratic inertia, or outright hostility for rooted restaurateurs who fear competition from cheaper, more nimble eateries on wheels.

Empanada Intifada [Photo: Official Website]

According to Empanada Intifada co-founder Taylor Jackson, the Food Truck Coalition is currently wrestling with two areas of concern ahead of the April 18 vote: residential zoning regulations that would officially lock food trucks out of about 98 percent of the city, and a catch-22 bathroom restriction that would limit mobile vendors to "donuts of operation" 100 feet away from restaurants, but 300 feet within a commercial restroom that's open to the public. In the push for the restroom requirement, it's not easy to see the other hand playing this game of political poker:

The other area of concern is the bathroom issue, and that's something where the politics of it are really unclear right now. We're not really sure for whom the bathroom issue is a make or break issue. Right now, in the current proposal, there's language stating that we have to be within 300 feet of a commercial restroom that's open to the public, or have a signed letter from a building owner of a commercial restroom that's not open to the public anytime we're operating. 300 feet is pretty small, and what would effectively happen under that is we'd have these little donuts of operation, because we couldn't be within 100 feet of a restaurant, but we'd have to be within 300 feet of a restroom. It's hard to say whether that's an improvement on the current distance restrictions or not without spending 20 or 30 hours with a GIS map, seeing where all those restaurants and restrooms are and determining where exactly food trucks would be allowed and where they wouldn't.

Although Cm. Head has said that the restroom requirement is "wholly inappropriate," in the interest of political pragmatism, she added the requirement as an option to consolidate support for the food truck proposal among Councilmembers Susan Guidry and Jackie Clarkson. If Cm. Head seems optimistic about the current proposal, it's because she sees the potential food trucks have to bring foot traffic neighborhoods under-served by brick-and-mortar restaurants and retail establishments, neighborhoods like the Freret Street of just six years ago:

If you'd talked to me six years ago, I would have said Freret would have been a perfect place to try to have one round-up after another. We did have the equivalent of round-ups with the Freret market every single month, which was one of the things that gave rise to the great resurgence in commercial investment along Freret. I certainly hope that same type of growth will occur in part because of interest from the Food Truck Coalition and food truck entrepreneurs in areas like St. Claude, St. Roch, Central City, parts of the Westbank, and even in New Orleans East.

central4%3A12.jpg A Central City round up [Photo: Facebook]

So-called "food deserts" aren't limited to the economically languishing sections of the city, either. Jackson, a former worker bee in the CBD's honeycomb of high rises, knows how limited the food options in the city's white-collar epicenter are. What could be an excellent marriage of busy, hungry people and quick, convenient food has been spoiled by a seeming minority of people wielding an inordinately large amount of political influence. Says Jackson:

I was one of those CBD people before I started the truck, and at times when I've been working the truck I've even had part-time contracts working in the business district. The argument that's being made that there are sufficient food options in the CBD is just patently absurd, and anyone who lives and works there laughs when those arguments come up. For whatever reason, those arguments have been persuasive with some of the councilmembers, and those councilmembers have, in turn, been reticent to really consider their own reality: City Hall is effectively a food desert itself.

By next Thursday, if all the pieces are in place for an up or down vote of the latest food truck proposal, City Council may finally give some measure of closure to its ironic position in the food desert yawning in the middle of New Orleans.

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