On Wednesday, the Houston City Council’s Quality of Life Committee began deliberating reforms of food truck laws. The Houston Chronicle’s Editorial Board was one of the first entities to truly cover the process, while Miya Shay at KTRK provided a much more extensive and evenhanded account of the issue. As best as I have understood, proposed reforms center around whether or not to allow propane-based food trucks in Downtown and the Texas Medical Center, as well as relaxing restrictions on how close they may congregate and prop up tables and chairs. I have placed calls to officials on both sides of this issue, in an attempt to understand this issue further.
Furthermore, the Houston Chronicle reported that, following Wednesday’s contentious committee hearing, Mayor Annise Parker announced that she would be unilaterally changing the pertinent regulations regarding food trucks downtown, though she would still try to push through Council-approved fixes on the other topics.
As best as I can figure out, this topic will be on the agenda at the next City Council meeting. Coming on the wheels of the super contentious Vehicles-for-Hire fight earlier in this same month (which itself followed the non-discrimination ordinance by only one week), Mayor Annise Parker has continued attempting to pass a large chunk of radical policy reforms. Love her or hate her, everyone should be impressed by just how much she has been able to accomplish, and will undoubtedly continue to accomplish (in the Strong-Mayor system used in Houston, the Mayor almost always gets her way). However, the key difference that I have been able to find is that the Mayor sought more of a consensus on the topics. The once-controversial Wage Theft ordinance passed unanimously, and the Payday Lending reform ordinance passed with only two dissensions. On the other hand, the NDO and the Vehicles-for-Hire fights were bitterly fought over and left many with bad feelings.
I have historically been broadly supportive of food trucks, as most astute followers of this publication might remember. Opponents of the proposed reforms have typically been a little slow in getting their valid objections out there, and the mainstream press has harped on the silliest statements ever made by Council opposition,. The Chronicle editorial not once, but twice, mentioned the outlandish tirades that former Councilmember Andrew Burks went on against food trucks, suggesting (among other things) that the propane tanks downtown could be used for terrorist activity. I stand by my assertions that strange comments are unbecoming of a public servant, but they shouldn’t be used to justify a position one way or another on this issue.
Something to remember on this issue is that food trucks are not a monolith. Food trucks should not be all assumed to be the cute, glitzy vehicles zooming around Montrose that so many simply assume them to be. They can also be unsafe, dirty deathtraps, typically situated in poorer neighborhoods. They need very stringent safety inspections, perhaps even more stringent than brick-and-mortar restaurants. But, as far as I can tell, the proposed changes do not deal with safety violations.
As for the propane tanks in densely populated areas, I am still skeptical of the regulation being sound. The facts are still out on the idea that trucks in densely populated areas are dangerous. There was, for example, a terrible tragedy out of Philadelphia last month involving an exploding food truck that killed two people. But restaurants deal with plenty of dangers too, and they have been prone to burning down every once in a while. However, as the Chronicle article repeatedly mentions, the trucks are allowed Uptown and in Greenway Plaza, other high density areas. Like any other issue, I think there should be some consistency. Ideally, that would be strengthening safety standards for the propane tanks, including regular inspection, then letting the trucks into the neighborhoods.
As for some of the other proposals, I still have not completely made up my mind. I am, however, an opponent of allowing individual tables and chairs for the specific food trucks. I do like and support the so-called “Food Truck parks,” in which community tables and chairs are shared among a plethora of trucks. But if individual furniture is used, the truck transforms into a pop-up restaurant.
Just like the Uber/Lyft debate, I am a big believer in everyone providing the same service abiding by the same regulations (Editorial note: Horwitz formerly contracted with the Clifford Group, a public relations firm that counted Yellow Cab among its clients. I have no dog in this fight, though). Restaurants must follow some pretty onerous restrictions, namely for public safety and health reasons. I can understand the idea that a restaurant and a food truck could plausibly provide different services, but not if the latter allowed “dine-in” service. You can’t have it both ways.
Personally, I am sick and tired of people comparing this issue to the Vehicle-for-Hire spat. There are some big differences, chief among them is that food trucks are not what I would call a “disruptor” into the restaurant industry in the same way. Food trucks, be it the Eatsie Boys or Bernie’s Burger Bus, have taken the next step and become restaurants on many occasions. I don’t think Uber or Lyft want to one day shift to the same business model as Yellow Cab. Furthermore, food trucks have not been operating downtown or doing other things that so openly and cavalierly violate the City of Houston’s ordinances. Call me old fashioned, but Uber’s incessant and gleeful lawbreaking is what sent me other the edge originally. The integrity of laws is important.
That is why I am bitterly opposed to the Mayor’s irresponsible decision to go around City Council on this issue. The Mayor, for all its power, is not a tyrant.