If you are one of the Pgh Taco Truck’s almost 28,000 followers on social media, you know that owner James Rich has been campaigning for changes in the city’s food truck legislation.
New Pittsburgh residents who have enjoyed offerings from the Pgh Taco Truck, Franktuary, Steer & Wheel and other city favorites may think: food trucks aren’t legal in Pittsburgh? Well they are. Sort of.
A food truck license in Pittsburgh binds operators to three germane restrictions:
- They cannot park in metered locations.
- They cannot park within 500 feet of a restaurant that sells similar items.
And if they can find a spot that conforms to the above restrictions—
- They cannot park for more than 30 minutes.
Christina Walsh, Director of Activism and Coalitions at the Institute for Justice (IJ), calls these laws “protectionist and one of the most onerous in the nation.”
Rich agrees and says that the laws unfairly restrict his source of livelihood. “First, there are more meters than ever before, so it’s hard to find a place to park in a well-trafficked area. I’m even willing to pay twice the meter rates if I have to.
“Second,” he continues, “the similar items clause is open to wide interpretation. Who is to say that a taco is not similar to a calzone? It is meat wrapped in dough, after all.” And one might argue that this clause does not apply to brick and mortar restaurants.
“The third restriction—if you have ever set up a food truck, you know that it takes a half hour just to get everything going. And once we do, we often have lines going for six to eight hours. We are not stealing this business from anywhere and even if we were, it’s (expletive) America.”
During his campaign for mayor, then Councilman Bill Peduto identified making Pittsburgh a “food truck friendly city” as initiative #79 in his “100 days, 100 policies to change Pittsburgh.” During a recent radio interview, Rich called in a question on the subject and the Mayor responded that the proper way to approach the issue is to provide “legislative change through council that then council votes on and becomes part of the city code.”
The Mayor then points out that no one has been ticketed. “What we’ve done is that we’ve taken a hands-off approach until council brings up the legislation to allow our food truck industry to grow,” the Mayor said. He then cautions, “Sometimes when there isn’t a problem, addressing it and saying there is may cause a negative reaction.”
In a statement for this article, the Mayor reiterated his position of “taking [a] hands-off approach to allow [the] food truck industry to grow until such time as City Council forwards legislation.”
Megan Lindsey, one of the co-owners of Franktuary which has both a restaurant and food truck, shares that she recently met with Dan Gilman, City Council member for the 8th District, who supports changes in the current legislation but cautions that “there are not quite enough Council members on the same side to pass it through.”
Tim Tobitsch, Lindsey’s partner, plans to meet with Council members who are on the fence. “Until we can convince a few more ears, we are in this strange food truck purgatory.”
Gilman is working hard on introducing legislative changes that he hopes will pass by this summer. “What the change in legislation will do primarily is provide clarity for truck operators. Reality on the ground is that these regulations have not been standing in the way of food truck operators, there have been no tickets issued to enforce it. But there is certainly more opportunity to provide clarity and transform what’s happening.”
He adds that “the current legislation was written with ice cream trucks in mind—they can follow a half-hour parking limit, for instance. What I propose to change are certainly the time limitations. We also have to consider that parking meters have modernized since that time. There is also a lot of self-regulation that happens—the taco truck doesn’t set up in front of Mexican restaurants. But of course, there is always a risk. One bad operator can cause issues.”
“The distance provision is most controversial and I’m working with restaurant owners and food truck owners to resolve this,” he adds.
Lindsey is looking forward to this resolution. “While not being ticketed is convenient for our operations, the ambiguity carries much risk for current and future operators. What if the City decides to start enforcing the rules tomorrow? I know a lot of operators who would go out of business if that happens.”
She adds that the ambiguity also prevents future entrepreneurs who want to launch food trucks from doing so. “It is confusing for someone who wants to enter the market. It is already very risky to start your own business and the risk is multiplied because of this added uncertainty.”
Walsh concurs with Lindsey and adds that the impetus for the laws are misguided. “These laws do nothing but hurt Pittsburgh entrepreneurs.”
A GOOD Magazine article titled “Why We Need Food Trucks in a Recession-Era Economy” makes two points for this case: food trucks give everyone access to quality food at a lower price point than they would pay at a restaurant and for entrepreneurs, the start-up costs are a fraction of what is required for a brick and mortar restaurant, making the industry, “tailor made for an economic downturn.”
In this tech-fueled economic recovery, conventional wisdom on innovation is to launch with minimum viable products (MVPs). One can say that food trucks are the MVPs of the restaurant industry. Or what GOOD calls “the ultimate scrappy startup for a generation full of aspiring business owners who have an overflow of ambition and a dearth of cash.”
Statistics do seem to indicate that food trucks’ growth tracks trends in the technology world.
The National Restaurant Association’s 2014 forecast shows that food trucks make up one of the fastest-growing sectors of the restaurant industry and a 2012 study by Emergent Research projects food truck revenue to quadruple to $2.7 billion by 2017.
In a Forbes article, Venkatesh Rao goes as far as to suggest that food trucks are the new bellwether of the social and cultural condition of an economy. And what he says in his article—“Entrepreneurship used to be about selling pickaxes to miners. Now it is about selling food truck fare to startup founders”—couldn’t have been a more appropriate caption for the scene around the Pgh Taco Truck as it parked in front of Zeke’s on Penn Ave., the coffee shop of choice in the emerging startup vortex that is East Liberty.
So do they hurt existing businesses? That is one of the major concerns.
According to an IJ report, the assertion that food trucks are harmful to a city’s restaurant industry is a myth. As Los Angeles and Austin show, cities with “robust mobile food scenes have boosted the industry as a whole.”
Food trucks bolster the industry in three ways. First, they are an attraction that draws people to neighborhoods thereby increasing the number of customers available to restaurants. Restaurant owners in Houston, Las Vegas, New York City’s Lower East Side and Chicago’s Maxwell Street have all recognized this and have advocated for benevolent policies that encourage food trucks.
Second, food trucks provide restaurants with a cost-effective way to expand and market their brick and mortar businesses. A number of local restaurants, including BRGR and Franktuary, have both food trucks and brick and mortar places for precisely those reasons.
Third, food trucks are a great way to incubate new restaurants and test concepts. For example, of The New York Food Truck Association’s 42 members, 40 percent of have gone on to build brick and mortar restaurants.
These points are certainly true for Franktuary. “We wanted to expand our restaurant—we just had a downtown location which was very small with not too much cooking equipment. We couldn’t raise the capital for another restaurant. I thought if we get a truck, we can expand our brand and have more people aware of who we were and what we were selling,” Lindsey says.
“It has proved to be an excellent step for us; we were able to open our Lawrenceville location after. I think more investors knew about us because of our food truck.”
The Pgh Taco Truck took over the kitchen operations of Gus’ Restaurant in Upper Lawrenceville—essentially getting a turnkey restaurant and giving his fans a permanent location to enjoy his tacos seven days a week. Like Franktuary, he will continue operations of his truck as well.
The IJ report goes on to dispel another myth—that food trucks have an unfair advantage because of their mobility—by enumerating the many ways food trucks are at a disadvantage vs. restaurants: no seating, no ability to serve high-margin liquor, small kitchens and therefore limited customers, and in the end, mobility can be a disadvantage because of the simple fact that customers won’t know where they are next. Many food trucks, in fact, rely on social media to give their customers updates on their locations.
What about sidewalk congestion? The report agrees—if you count the one second in additional pedestrian travel time that results from a food truck being parked on the block.
Perhaps one of the most important contributions that food trucks make is that they diversify the local economy—by “offering immigrants and others with little income or capital, opportunities for self-sufficiency and upward mobility.”
In Pittsburgh, there are about a dozen food trucks and operators have formed an advocacy group called The Pittsburgh Mobile Food Coalition. To date, the group has collected over 3,600 signatures in support of changing the City’s food truck legislation.
Proponents of change to the food truck laws are not suggesting that all levels of regulation be repealed.
“Food trucks operate within the health department’s requirements—which are very strict but do a good job of ensuring safety,” says Lindsey.
Walsh adds that “it is appropriate for the government to protect the public’s health and safety, through regulations concerning food trucks’ effects on traffic congestion and the trash they generate.” But she criticizes the preferential nature of Pittsburgh’s current laws.
To date, Rich has not acquired the required license because he deems it unfair. “I’m going to be cited either way. Why would I even get a license? It would be paradoxical to buy something that gives you permission to vend but really doesn’t allow you to vend the way it’s written.”
He then shares a comment from a business owner of a shop next to Espresso a Mano in Lawrenceville, where he parks on Sundays and Mondays when the nearest restaurant is closed. “We’re happy that you’re here because it keeps people walking past and it just makes this end of the street that much more inviting.”