Years after the food truck craze hit Tampa and other major cities across the country, the mobile kitchens are still largely absent here because of more cumbersome city rules.
Those regulations are on the verge of changing, though, and food trucks could soon become a more common sight in St. Petersburg.
Thursday, the City Council’s Public Service and Infrastructure Committee unanimously agreed to take the next step toward streamlining regulations for food trucks.
The proposal, which must be reviewed by the Development Review Commission before being considered by the City Council, would allow food truck operators to work off an annual permit, instead of applying for a temporary permit every time they set up on private property.
Under that annual permit, the food truck could be on a piece of private property only two consecutive days a week, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; public streets would be out of the question.
While the food truck could relocate to other locations for the other five days – as long as it doesn’t overstay its two-day welcome – a property owner couldn’t host a food truck beyond the two-day-a-week limit.
Still, there could be exceptions.
If, say, there’s a special event – such as First Night, which is sponsored by the city – the event organizer could apply for a temporary permit. Hours of operation could be extended beyond 9 p.m., and a food truck could park on the street.
“At least there’s a defined set of rules we know we can comply with,” said Michael Blasco, chief executive officer for Tampa Bay Food Truck Rally, an event and promotion company for the local food truck industry.
In addition to the proposed permitting system, the City Council might want to consider requiring food trucks to have arrangements with nearby businesses, so a food truck’s employees could use the bathroom, said Derek Kilborn, a manager with the city’s Urban Planning and Historic Preservation division.
Though the rules governing the trucks’ location may seem restrictive at first blush, operators say they are a welcome relief from the difficult system now in place in St. Petersburg.
Scott Brown, a Palm Harbor resident who owns The Dude and His Food truck, tried to set up shop in the Grand Central District about a year ago but was deterred by the amount of permitting and fees required.
“It was just so complicated it wasn’t even worth it,” he said.
“They really didn’t know what to do because we’re mobile.”
The proposed regulations are in sync with how food trucks owners operate going where the crowds are, as opposed to establishing themselves in one location day in and day out, as a restaurant does.
“The thing about our business is we do it because we want to travel around,” said Maggie Loflin, a St. Petersburg resident who owns the Maggie on the Move food truck.
“We don’t want to go to the same place every day.”
Loflin sets up at the Saturday Morning Market downtown every week but otherwise works outside the city because of St. Petersburg’s permitting issues.
Under the new rules being considered, though, so long as a food truck owner has an annual permit and written permission from a property owner to be there, the truck could set up shop there for a couple of days, Kilborn said.
As the proposed rules wind their way to a City Council hearing, there is sure to be discussion of the perceived competition food trucks pose for downtown restaurants.
Councilman Jim Kennedy, a longtime champion for downtown bars and businesses, wants to preserve the resurging downtown vibe.
“Downtown isn’t broken,” he said. “Maybe that’s something we could do in an ordinance like this.”
A different set of rules could be drawn up for downtown, Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn said.
The sentiment to protect downtown restaurants at the expense of the food trucks wasn’t unanimous, though.
“We want to be careful with restricting them [food trucks] too much,” said Councilman Steve Kornell.
“If I want a sit-down meal, I’m not going to a food truck. Austin has them all over the place, right next to restaurants, and they didn’t seem to have a problem. I think there’s some room there.”
Blasco said he realizes there’s resistance against food trucks downtown.
“In the 10-by-10 block core area, you’re not even allowed to operate a food truck unless you are in a special event,” he said.
“There’s a fear that 200 food trucks are going to converge on downtown St. Pete. The figure is more like 20.”
Relaxing the rules for food trucks likely would bring more back to the city, Brown and Loflin said.
“I think there is a market in St. Pete,” Loflin said.
“People are looking for food trucks because they know how cool they are. … They just bring a social aspect.”