The Parker administration plans to allow propane-fueled food trucks downtown and may loosen other regulations on the trendy operations, moves that drew cheers from Houston’s booming foodie community and pushback from some brick-and-mortar restaurant owners.
Allowing the propane-fueled trucks into the Central Business District and the Texas Medical Center is an administrative change that does not require City Council approval, Mayor Annise Parker said at her weekly press conference Wednesday.
Parker said she has received an opinion from the fire marshal’s office deeming propane tanks of up to 60 pounds safe for mobile food units in the downtown area. It was not clear Wednesday when that rule change would go into effect, though it is likely to be coupled with smaller, more technical regulatory changes to the food truck policy that the City Council could vote on as soon as this fall.
The council considered removing the effective ban on food trucks downtown almost two years ago, but the issue proved too contentious and council members kicked any changes to 2014.
Allowing food trucks downtown is essential to opening up one of Houston’s signature attractions, Parker said.
“We’re a foodie destination,” she said. “We ought to make sure that we do things that allow food innovation to take place.”
The City Council will get a say in some sanitary changes the public health department is recommending and, most notably, whether to allow food truck owners to use chairs and tables around their vehicles.
Those regulations got their first public vetting at a Quality of Life Committee meeting Wednesday, drawing testimony from food truck operators and customers who said it is time to open up the market and restaurant owners who said they were concerned that the trucks present unfair, less regulated competition.
“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.
Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.
“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”
The city’s public health department has a similar ratio of inspectors to food trucks as it does inspectors to restaurants, Assistant Director Patrick Key said. There are 30 inspectors assigned to 13,000 restaurants and three inspectors assigned to the 800 food trucks across the city.
Ryan Soroka, co-owner of Eatsie Boys food trucks and a cafe in Montrose, said the food inspections on the company’s trucks are more rigorous than those at their brick-and-mortar establishment, 8th Wonder Brewery.
Soroka and his partners started a gourmet sandwich business out of a food truck four years ago. The vendors they use and the community functions they draw business to are good for the economy, Soroka said. The regulatory changes, he said, will make it easier for those trucks to be profitable and their owners to potentially open restaurants.
“These are not life-changing issues for most people,” Soroka said. “But I assure you, they will change the lives of small-business owners who proudly and tirelessly work these food trucks.”
Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.
“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.
Former City Councilman Peter Brown told the committee the proposed changes would make downtown areas more pedestrian-friendly.
“We need to make the public realm in our city much more enjoyable to all Houstonians,” Brown said.