Save the Street Food!

January 13, 2010

In our last issue, we reported on local street food vendors. In addition to tasting their delicious offerings, we learned something unfortunate: the city is about to force them out.

Okay, that may overstate the case. The city is not intentionally or maliciously targeting food carts for extinction. However, city rules do require that food carts acquire permits, those permits are temporary, and after two permits expire, the carts must either move or shut down.

Olympia city rules define mobile vendors, including sidewalk food carts, as a “temporary use.” At one time, food carts were required to reapply for a permit every 120 days, but it was possible for vendors to reapply continually, even if they stayed in one spot. That changed in November 2008. Under new rules passed by the city council then and still in effect, temporary use permits are good for only 90 days, and only two permits will be issued for any specific site per calendar year.

City staff interpret this to mean that food carts must move every 180 days, with the possibility of returning 180 days later. They may move a short distance, perhaps just down the block, but that’s not as easy as it sounds.

For example, The Royal Lounge installed new heavy-duty electrical outlets at the front of their building to power the hot dog cart there. If the cart moves, they will need to string extension cords across an alley to in front of a neighboring business (and hope the bar patrons don’t trip over the cords and don’t cause problems for the neighbor).

The Gyro Spot sits off the sidewalk in the space in front of Olympic Outfitters (with their permission). There is no comparable site nearby. If they moved to in front of a neighboring business, they would have to occupy and block the sidewalk, exactly the problem city rules are designed to prevent. If they moved farther away, they would have to hope the clientele they have built up finds them again.

Also, the permit fee is $180. That’s $180 for each permit, good only for 90 days, or $720 annually. No other type of business in the city, large or small, must apply and pay for the same permit over and over again for the same activity.

By comparison, the hot dog spot at Jake’s on Fourth is inside the building with a window to the sidewalk, so it does not need the temporary food vendor permit. It does, however, place a table and chairs on the sidewalk for patrons, which occupies the sidewalk in a similar manner but requires a different permit – a permit that is both free and permanent.

(All food service businesses also need a separate permit from the county health department.)

We understand the need for some kind of permit to ensure that food carts are good neighbors. The standards in city code mostly ensure that the food cart does not block the sidewalk, and they make sense.

But if a food cart is in accordance with those standards, and is deemed appropriate to be there for 180 days, why should it be deemed inappropriate on the 181st day? What problem is this requirement designed to fix? Is there a plague of food carts overstaying their welcome in downtown Olympia?

If a food cart wants to set up permanently in front of someone else’s business, perhaps they should be need permission from that business. Right now, though, food carts have to move after 180 days even if that business likes having them there.

More broadly, it makes no sense to treat food vendors as temporary uses at all. The other activities listed in city code as “temporary uses” are truly and inherently temporary, such “circuses, carnivals and similar transient amusement enterprises,” and “off-site contractor’s offices…associated with an active construction project.” But that isn’t true of food carts. Many carts will not survive longterm, of course, but that should be based on market forces and the decision of the vendor, not the city. If a sidewalk hot dog stand can operate successfully year-round, let it.

When the amendment that created the current rules was passed, city staff described the changes in a report to the city council as merely “clarification” and setting “a standard duration and number of times a temporary use may occupy a specific site.” The staff report does not even mention food carts explicitly. It is not clear that anyone even noticed the substantive impact of effectively prohibiting permanent food carts.

We do not accuse the city of spitefully trying to get rid of food carts. However, it is at least guilty of an oversight – one that might seem unimportant unless you are trying to run a business as a street food vendor. We suspect that city decision-makers just did not consider food carts to be “real” businesses worthy of equal consideration.

In recent years, the Olympia City Council has emphasized things that you cannot do in downtown: you cannot make noise that might bother future condominium-dwellers, you cannot sit on the sidewalks, and you cannot park for free (coming soon). It is time for the council to focus on what we can do, including eliminating pointless restrictions on food carts.

For small business owners trying to make a modest living with a food cart, and for the folks who line up for their hot dogs, gyros, and burritos, this is an urgent matter. They literally have 180 days before the cart are forced out (and 90 days before they must hand over another $180). If the city cannot fix the rules by then, the city council should pass an interim measure extending the existing permits until new rules are written.

In the big picture, this would be a good way for the new Olympia City Council to demonstrate that the negative era of “fixing downtown Olympia by getting rid of things we don’t like” is over, and that it is now committed to supporting creative local businesses and activities that positively attract people to downtown. ◙

Comments are closed.