Food truck owners want a place at the table in downtown Spokane, but remain opposed to proposed city regulations despite modifications negotiated last week.
The sticking point is a requirement that owners of established restaurants OK trucks parked within 50 feet of their doors. Who, truck owners ask, would risk their business on the consent of another competing for the same customers (except they are not the same customers)?
Not a bad question. So while the 50-foot boundary represents a compromise from the original 75 feet, a better solution might be the approach taken by Seattle, which designates the curb spaces where trucks can park.
Truck owners are issued permits for specific days and time periods. Different regulations apply to special events, and to sidewalk vendors, and – this will sound familiar – sellers of pre-packaged foods who must be 50 feet from food service businesses and public parks.
Having the city determine where the trucks can park will eliminate what the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association and the Institute for Justice – a libertarian law firm – say is an unconstitutional effort to protect established businesses by suppressing new entrants into the market. Would a McDonald’s be allowed to veto the opening of a Burger King next door?
The argument made by Spokane City Council members that they are only trying to protect the significant investment made by restaurant owners against low-cost, drive-by competition is understandable, but may not be defensible. Entrenched business and industries with billions invested – land-line phone utilities, for example – are constantly overrun by new technologies.
And even those concerned about the impact on downtown Spokane’s 120 restaurants, coffee shops and bars that serve food agree that food trucks don’t just divide the existing pie, they create a bigger pie. The trucks attract more diners, many who have no intention of sitting down for a meal. Some unwilling to wait to place a standup order may choose a full-service or fast-food establishment instead.
The trucks certainly generate a street vibe that encourages more pedestrian circulation that is good for every business.
There always has been a lot of churn among Spokane’s restaurant businesses. Even Cyrus O’Leary’s, for 31 years a downtown landmark, could not withstand the recession. But if Spokane is going to remain a vibrant urban center for the region, amenities like food trucks must be part of the scene.
With summer beckoning, it’s unfortunate that truck owners did not organize, and bring in the Institute for Justice, until city officials had put a year into drafting an ordinance that will give the trucks a legitimate claim to downtown turf. Their last-minute objections already have delayed City Council action by one month. If the proposal needs more work, the time and sales lost while the proposed ordinance remains half-baked is on them.
But they have their place, or places. The city, not restaurants, should determine where those are.