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Politicians, Mobile Vendors and Businesses Meet to Discuss the Future of L.A.'s Food Truck Policy

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A food truck serves customers while parked on Wilshire Boulevard | Photo by polaroid-girl via LAist Featured Photos on Flickr

A food truck serves customers while parked on Wilshire Boulevard | Photo by polaroid-girl via LAist Featured Photos on Flickr
Food trucks are nothing new and have been part of the Southern Californian culture for decades. In fact, an estimated 6,000 roam the streets of Los Angeles County today. But with their recent rise in popularity, specifically due to new gourmet ones, there have been impacts. Some of those impacts are about the law, such as illegally parking, and others are ethical, like parking a food truck smack dab in front of a restaurant.

Today a panel of the Los Angeles City Council met to talk about the issues and to take the first steps towards a solution, something restaurants, food truck operators and politicians all agreed on.

"This is the beginning of a series of meetings where we hope to come up with an equitable policy with everybody in the community," Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, the chair of the transportation committee, said in his opening remarks, in which he also noted his fondness for the Grilled Cheese Truck.

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Councilmember Tom LaBonge, who authored two food truck motions that prompted today's meeting, said he wanted to resolve the issues, and started off by showing a photo of trucks lined up next to each other. "This is not acceptable to me as a representative," he said.

Fellow Councilmember Paul Koretz, who earlier this year expressed the need to solve food truck issues, had a different take on the problems. "The main reason we have problems is that our people are not enforcing the law," he explained, mostly in regards to food trucks appearing in residential neighborhoods of the district he represents. "If we were just enforcing the laws strictly, our problems would be solved... We have to hold our people accountable."

That sentiment was expressed by some food truck operators, but other ideas were brought to the table by staff who were asked to research methods of regulation applied in other cities. In San Jose, for example, food trucks may not park within 200 feet of each other, except during special events.

Another method found throughout California was the creation of a permitting system, similar to how taxis are regulated. The problem is that some food trucks do not obey parking laws and absorb parking tickets as a cost of doing business. Under a city created system, however, mobile food vendors could risk losing their permit or face steep fines for receiving a certain amount of tickets within a period of time, theorized a city attorney.

"I like the direction you're going in, accepting the fact that mobile food vending is part of the culture in Los Angeles... it's not going anywhere," said Councilmember Richard Alarcon. He said there would have to be consistent enforcement and high-enough fines to get trucks to comply.

But Alarcon also said brick and mortar restaurants are now facing unfair competition and that maybe taxes should be lowered for them. He thinks there can be a balance and said he wouldn't mind seeing a food truck and restaurant working together (if someone was selling carne asada outside a Menchies, he would be heaven, he noted).

Much of today's discussion will go up for study that would be reported back on in a few months. LaBonge wanted answers to many ideas and questions, including regulating the number of food trucks that could operate within the city and if that could hurt or benefit the city when neighboring cities create similar laws to compete with Los Angeles.

Terrance Powell of the L.A. County Department of Health said any regulation the city comes up with should take health laws into account. Of note was one of the major violations health inspectors see in the field. State law requires anything stationary for one hour has to have access to fully functional restrooms. That doesn't mean any restroom, but ones that are within 200 feet on the same side of the street where a food truck operator has written permission to use the bathroom, which also must fall under health guidelines.

During public comment, food truck operators, restauranteurs and business representatives all wanted to make sure their side was heard, many of them requesting they be placed on a food truck task force.

Erin Glenn of the Asociación de Loncheros L.A. Familia Unida de California presented a plan her organization put together. "We actually would like some kind of permit process -- renting of a space, if you will. Not an actual physical space, but a fee that would be like an issuing of a medallion for the taxi cabs, for instance."

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"This is our folks' livelihood, there is no other option at this point," Glenn continued, explaining that her membership base was made up of many traditional vendors who have been working in the industry for over 30 years.

"It really worries me that I would lose my only source of employment at my age," said one Lonchero member who has been operating a truck for 25 years. "If there will be an ordinance, I would like it to be a just ordinance."

Restaurant owners also expressed their exasperation. "It's pretty frustating that they get one ticket, even two tickets, and stay there for four, five hours," said a Wilshire Boulevard restaurant owner.

A representative from the California Restaurant Association also had concerns, but noted they represent restaurants and food trucks. "What we're asking for is a level playing field," he said, explaining one concern is the ethical one: parking in front of a restaurant.

Food truck operators wanted to dispel perceptions of their business model. Many see numerous health inspections in a few month period when restaurants see the same amount within twelve months. Trucks have to obtain permits and business licenses, often multiple ones if they plan to offer food in different cities and counties. They also must rent space at commissaries, hire employees, pay taxes and clean the truck every night.

"What we're facing here is a paradigm shift in the food industry," said former Hermosa Beach Mayor John Bowler, who now runs the Barbie's Q Truck. "They are there because your constituents are shopping at those trucks... Those trucks would not be there if they weren't doing sufficient business."

Terry Bloomgarden of the L.A. classic Canters Deli -- both the restaurant and the truck -- agreed that parking in front of a business is unethical, but warned of overzealous regulation that could kill the food truck industry in Los Angeles. "We have people coming here now respecting the city. This is one of the most postiive things happening in the city," she said. "It's such a positive thing that Los Angeles has been missing. We need to find some way to get everyone together and work some way."

What she suggested is not unheard of.

Problems came to a head a few years ago when some municipalities placed regulations on truck parking. But that spawned lawsuits, a movement called Carne Asada is Not a Crime and Glenn's loncheros association, which has worked with its members to be educated on both legal and ethical issues.

"I think this has been a great start and opportunity to discuss all these issues," said LaBonge as the meeting wrapped up. "This will happen again."