Are we overthinking food trucks?
Yesterday the City of San Antonio released its latest schedule of food truck locations and vendors, highlighting some of the changing dynamics of the program downtown. Gone are the City Hall Hall Annex, Hemisfair Park, and the never really started Maverick Park. Added are Main Plaza, the Weston Center, and Travis Park. The vendors seem to be the same set of vendors launched under the first round of the pilot. This pilot is expected to last through Oct. 31st when the city will evaluate it one more time. Yea, I had to put that emphasis on the the statement because it really feels like the CoSA is overanalyzing this issue. I’m beginning to wonder if this issue will get so piloted and analyzed everyone will hope it goes away, or at least the city will hope so. So why is this so hard to implement in San Antonio when other cities around the nation have active downtown food truck environments?
To be honest, food trucks are not new to San Antonio. I mean, we have had taco trucks all along. Heck, if you visit the new South Texas Heritage Center at the Witte Museum, you’ll see a portion of the exhibit dedicated to the Chili Queens in Main Plaza. During the turn of the century in San Antonio, these ladies would set up their stands in Main Plaza, Military Plaza, and they Haymarket. As the late Mayor Maury Maverick said “Life in San Antonio was free and easy. The band played on the square in front of the Alamo, and San Antonians came out on the public square and walked around in circles just as they do in Mexico. In front of the Alamo there were chili stands.” Today, recreation of that same experience is attempted during the Memorial Day Weekend in the Mercado. Heck, pick any festival in San Antonio and you’ve got something similar to the Chili Queens or food trucks throughout the city. San Antonians don’t have a problem eating food from something other than a sit-down restaurant.
So what’s taking so long to bring something similar to the tradition back to San Antonio? After all, this shouldn’t be rocket science. On a recent visit to Portland (yea, I’ll try to stop referring to things on the visit but it’s going to take a while) I ran across that city’s version of the experience with the many food trucks/carts/trailers positioned on city blocks throughout the downtown. Portland’s foodie experience has been heralded as one of the best in the world. Walk a couple of blocks in downtown Portland and you’ll find a parking lot where the edges are lined side by side with a vast array of trucks, carts, and trailers, many set up almost as permanent fixtures on the lot. The Portland street food craze seemed to grow up as many things in Portland do, without a lot of regulation. But so far it hasn’t a) hurt anyone eating at the locations and b) hurt downtown restaurants.
Up the road in Austin, the food truck craze is taking off with almost as much fervor as Portland. That might be expected since while Austin claims to be “weird,” it doesn’t hold a candle to Portland in the edgy category. Still, having the culture in downtown parking lots isn’t hurting the restaurant industry of Austin. Then you come to San Antonio, where we have this ordinance on the books that “protects” our downtown restaurants. Recently, that ordinance kicked the trucks out of the Weston Center where owner Graham Weston tried to join the city’s pilot on his own. After all, the lot was his and he should have been able to allow the trucks to set up shop. That pesky ordinance requires that any restaurant within 300 feet of the trucks must agree to allowing the trucks in the location.
Solution? Bring the Weston Center into the city’s pilot which is exempt from the ordinance. So instead of fixing the ordinance itself, the city pulled an end-around on the restaurants close to the Weston Center parking lot. But that doesn’t really solve the problem and keeps kicking the can down the road. The problem, as I see it, is that if we keep changing the rules for food truck owners it will be hard to attract more variety to the scene. Yes, truck vendors can jump into the pilot but they must apply and be selected by the city to participate, according to the pilot regulations. In other words, the city controls the scene, not the vendors.
Look, I’m glad we did a pilot to start with. Yes, it helped us figure out what sites might be good and what sites might not. I mean, who would have ever considered Maverick Park as a good site? Maybe on Fiesta parade days but that’s prohibited by the pilot regulations (see 9.31.1). But it’s time to get the city out of the game, to a degree, and let these vendors jump into the mix. The key is getting some variety out there for people to enjoy and move this out of a “neat thing to do.” Sure, we’re now in the dog days of summer in San Antonio, which are probably some of the longest around, but I can bet people will be willing to get out of the office and enjoy mingling with each other. To take it a step further, why not extend the hours beyond 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., which is what the current pilot requires.
Okay, I’ve said my piece on the matter. Let’s see how long this will take. Hopefully it won’t be some prolonged exercise in bureaucracy.