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City cooking up simpler rules for food trucks

Roian Doctor carries a picnic table into position around The Jamaican Jerk Pan food truck Friday at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Cannon Street in Spokane. Doctor and his wife, Sabrina Sorger, have worked through the city’s permitting and zoning issues and are now embarking on their second year at the site. (Dan Pelle)
Roian Doctor carries a picnic table into position around The Jamaican Jerk Pan food truck Friday at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Cannon Street in Spokane. Doctor and his wife, Sabrina Sorger, have worked through the city’s permitting and zoning issues and are now embarking on their second year at the site. (Dan Pelle)

When Sabrina Sorger and her husband, Roian Doctor, first rolled out their food truck last year, they got a lot of visits from Spokane city officials.

First, they were told their Jamaican Jerk Pan truck was parked in a residential area. Then another employee revised that – it was commercial, and they were OK. Then there were concerns over the truck’s electrical cord crossing a sidewalk.

“They sent three different departments out,” said Sorger.

The Jamaican Jerk Pan worked through its permitting and zoning issues and is now embarking on its second year in business at Fourth Avenue and Cannon Street. As food trucks move beyond the realm of hip trend and toward the world of established fixtures, the city is working to revise the way it works with them, saying it wants to ease the process for entrepreneurs.

If that happens, it will be a win for a more vibrant city; the mobile cafes, serving everything from tacos to sandwiches to jerk chicken, are popping up with greater frequency on city streets, in parking lots and at special events from Art Fest to farmers markets. People tend to consider the trend just another one of those Portland things – like earlobe gauging and pioneer beards – but food trucks are as Spokane as it comes. Our signature food event, after all, is little more than a Rainbow gathering of mobile food vendors in Riverfront Park, and we’re ready for more.

“Spokane really loves it,” said Joile Forral, co-owner of the Couple of Chefs Catering truck. “People are really receptive to it.”

Though the city rules are still a work in progress, some food truck owners say they’re a little worried that the process – touted as an effort to simplify and streamline – will actually add extra hurdles.

“It’s simplifying and streamlining for them – not for us,” Sorger said. “I can’t say I’m completely disappointed, but I’m worried.”

The city’s review and whatever proposals emerge from it are still a work in progress. But several ideas that are part of the city’s public presentation on its Mobile Food Vendor Project do seem likely to simplify and improve the rules. Among the ideas food vendors and others have suggested are: identifying and clarifying zones where trucks can operate; providing more of a “one-stop” process, with a checklist, for negotiating the different requirements; adding more specific rules for avoiding clogging up the sidewalks and working through conflicts with “brick and mortar” restaurants.

Sorger said she was concerned that the city would require on-site reviews and separate permitting for every site a mobile truck might want to go. For her truck, which sticks mostly to its Fourth and Cannon location, that might not be a huge impediment. But for others – who might typically try to park at several spots every week – it could be.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said that is not the direction city discussions have been heading. Rather, a system with a single permit for operating within predetermined zones seems more likely – and that’s the very approach Sorger said she would suggest.

The city has held several meetings and forums. Another one is scheduled for July 10 before the Plan Commission. A series of proposed additions and revisions to the city code will likely go before the City Council this summer, and the new rules would likely take effect next year.

It might seem less complicated than it really is to come up with these new rules. On the surface, after all, food trucks are models of simplicity.

As Stoakley Lloyd, general manager of the Original P.H.A.T. Truck, put it, it boils down to: “OK, where are the people?”

“We’re just kind of looking for opportunities where there are hungry people,” he said.

That means they park in several spots downtown on a regular basis for lunch, as well as near the bars late at night. They’ll work special events and do one-time deals – like a recent visit to Arlington Elementary for teacher appreciation day.

Each of those uses creates issues, ranging from where the trucks park to their effect on any surrounding businesses. Current city regulations simply don’t answer most of those questions. One area the rules will have to address is the relationship between food trucks and restaurants – who may not appreciate competitors pulling up and parking right out front or across the street.

Several food truck vendors said they try to respect existing restaurants.

“We don’t even park in front of another restaurant – that’s rude,” Forral said.

She and co-owner Allen Skelton are entering their second year in the food-truck business in Spokane. Like the others, they’re trying to strike a balance between the flexibility offered by their trucks and the stability needed to build a customer base. They have a regular schedule of spots Tuesday through Friday – check for details online, as with any food truck – and feel they’re building a solid repeat business.

“In Spokane, people love their routine,” Skelton said. “It’s just a matter of being there.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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