A Real Cluster Truck: As food trucks proliferate, tension builds between mobile vendors and immovable eateries

A Real Cluster Truck: As food trucks proliferate, tension builds between mobile vendors and immovable eateries

At first glance the map of permissible vending locations that the City of St. Louis provides to newly licensed food trucks looks like the damage report from a London Blitz-style air strike downtown. A red dot marks the entrance of every brick-and-mortar restaurant, and a pale blue circle surrounds each dot, marking a 200-foot radius within which food trucks aren't allowed to park. The map covers nearly all of downtown, bounded by Interstate 70/55 to the east, 18th Street to the west, Cole Street to the north and Chouteau Avenue to the south. In the heart of downtown, where most office workers are concentrated and, consequently, where food-truck operators most want to be, those pale blue circles overlap again and again, forming an almost-contiguous quilt of off-limits real estate.

Yet even in the densest blue clusters, the map reveals splotches of space open to food trucks. Prime locations, such as the intersection of Eighth and Pine streets and Market Street at Broadway, are marked with a blue star, designating them as "recommended" spots for food trucks.

But real life seldom approaches the perfection of circles and stars, and there has been friction between mobile vendors and rooted restaurants almost from the get-go. As the number of trucks continues to multiply — totaling nearly two dozen at last count, serving everything from fish tacos to Korean tacos to gyros to wood-fired pizzas to "deconstructed" sushi rolls — so does the likelihood that some interested party is being rubbed the wrong way.

Around Christmastime the bickering boiled over onto Twitter, when a restaurateur called police complaining that a food-truck operator had parked right outside his establishment on Broadway. The interloper was sent packing, prompting apocalyptic tweets from fellow vendors that their kind was "no longer welcome" at the popular confluence of Broadway and Pine Street nearby. (For more about the dustup, see the RFT's December 29, 2011, "Short Orders" column.)

The City of St. Louis and the rest of the metro area have been playing catch-up to varying degrees since the food-truck boom began.

The city opted to cover the trucks under an existing vending ordinance that had been created to regulate hot-dog carts and the like, including the ad hoc cadre of hawkers who pop up like mushrooms when the baseball season gets under way.

"Under that ordinance, they cannot be anywhere but downtown in the approved vending zone," explains Kara Bowlin, press secretary to Mayor Francis Slay. (A "pilot" program calls for a $500 annual permit fee for food trucks, Bowlin says, adding that the city has yet to settle on a yearly rate and noting that some vendors pay as much as $6,000 a year to lay exclusive claim to a spot.) Because the vending ordinance didn't account for potential conflict between mobile eateries and their brick-and-mortar brethren, the city's Department of Streets developed the 200-foot rule.

In spite of the map's precision, enforcement has been laissez-faire, an approach Bowlin characterizes as: "If it isn't bothering anyone...." Until last summer, for example, trucks often parked at the southwest corner of Euclid and Forest Park avenues, on the northern edge of the Barnes-Jewish Hospital campus. Only after a nearby business complained — presumably a restaurant, though the complainant never came forward — did police tell the trucks to move. Trucks visiting the Barnes-Jewish complex now park at Washington University's medical-school dormitory on Scott Avenue, a short, dead-end street that isn't an approved vending area but is several blocks away from the nearest restaurant.

The Christmastime incident on Broadway jostled food-truck operators' delicate equilibrium. Though Broadway and Pine was undisputedly a blue-star intersection, it is so well-trod by hungry downtowners that it attracted multiple trucks, which resulted in a gradual creep northward toward Olive Street. The city's map shows that Chili Mac's Diner, Jimmy John's and Monty's Sandwich Company form a collective barrier that covers both sides of Broadway, but the trucks had managed to perpetuate an uneasy, undeclared truce with the restaurateurs.

Kandace Davis, who co-owns the Cha Cha Chow taco truck, says she and her partner Linda Jones have gone out of their way to respect their non-mobile competition. "We make it a point to support every single restaurant," says Davis. "We either go buy lunch or trade food. We're just in the habit of making friends. We want them to do well."

Davis says restaurateurs who've complained about her truck (she declines to name them) are splitting hairs over the 200-foot rule: "If we're 199 feet [away], that's a huge big deal." But the incident that prompted the pre-Christmas eviction was clearly confrontational: Two trucks parked directly in front of Monty's at Broadway and Olive, obscuring the recently opened restaurant's temporary signage. Owner Steve May asked the drivers to move. One refused, and May called the police.

"We didn't care that they were on the other corner," May asserts, adding that he often bought grub from the trucks while he was working to ready Monty's for its November debut. But when they set up shop at his doorstep? "That to me was kind of offensive," he says.

"I see both points of view," says Brian Hardesty, who operates a food truck, Guerrilla Street Food, and the Richmond Heights restaurant Root. "There [are] plenty of spots. I'm cool with moving down the block."

On the other hand, Hardesty argues, food trucks and stationary restaurants aren't necessarily in competition for the same customers, even when they're in close proximity to one another: "No food truck would complain that a bricks-and-mortar place opened at our favorite [parking] spot," he says.

Compared to the surrounding metro area, St. Louis city officials' pursuit of accommodation and reconciliation is the exception rather than the rule. The city of Clayton, for instance, categorizes food trucks under existing ordinances that prohibit selling goods on the street or the sidewalk. Though food trucks aren't banned outright — they may participate in vendor-friendly affairs such as the Clayton Farmers' Market — you won't find them outside an office tower during weekday lunch hours.

"We've talked to our restaurants — we have over 80 of them in a two-and-a-half-square-mile area," Gary Carter, who heads Clayton's Office of Economic Development, told Riverfront Times last summer. "They're concerned that they've invested in brick and mortar. Rent is above average in Clayton, on top of the recession and the investment they've made."

Webster Groves, meanwhile, passed an ordinance last year restricting food trucks from the three areas the municipality has designated as "special business districts."

Roger Grow, the city's director of planning and development, says the matter arose after a cupcake vendor "set up in one of the business districts, right outside a restaurant. That's when we decided to examine our regulations."

Grow characterizes the ordinance as an exercise in fairness: In special business districts, on top of property costs and other unavoidable expenses, property owners pay additional taxes and businesses pay a 50 percent surcharge on their licenses. (The fees support publicly funded events within those districts.)

Kara Bowlin says the city considers its food-truck regulations a work in progress. "We are looking at other cities," she says, noting that "it doesn't seem like any one city has an excellent plan everyone's happy with."

Adds Bowlin: "We're fans of good food, whether it's from truck, restaurant or stationary vendor," provided that everyone plays by fair rules.

In the meantime, Cha Cha Chow hasn't given up on Broadway and Pine. The week after being evicted, the truck tweeted that it had found a spot that was 200 feet away from the nearest restaurant. To make sure, the Cha Cha Chow staff had determined the distance with a tape measure.

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