LINCOLN — Launching a restaurant used to require the right location, a bank loan and a gambler's tolerance for risk.
Now it seems like it takes just four wheels and a couple of Crock-Pots.
Imaginative chefs have driven food trucks far beyond the land of corn dogs and cotton candy, making mobile cuisine a popular trend on the coasts and on food television. They have been slower to arrive in the Midwest, but Omaha, Lincoln and Council Bluffs have all seen growth in food truck numbers the past three years.
That produces heartburn among some owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants, who say it's unfair to allow a food truck to roll in and compete at a prime location the truck's owners didn't invest in. Those concerns have helped restrict food trucks from using public parking in the very places that could prove most lucrative — Omaha's Old Market and Lincoln's Haymarket and its downtown district.
So rolling chefs have had to sell their vindaloo tacos and firecracker rangoons while parked on mostly private lots. While they have to comply with the same regulations and safety inspections as any restaurant, they complain about being prevented from vending where pedestrian traffic runs highest.
“I don't know why they want to fight us,” said Tyree Wagner, owner of Ty's Amazing Food Truck in Omaha. “We just want to make our little money and go about our way.”
Jim Partington, director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, said his members don't want to prevent food trucks from finding their niche. But the trucks have two big advantages over restaurants — low overhead and mobility at the turn of an ignition key. If trucks were to put an established restaurant out of business, the larger community would take a hit in the way of losses in jobs and tax revenue.
“We have an interest in seeing that there is a level playing field,” Partington said.
Elected officials and city employees are in the middle.
Food truck operators in Lincoln, for example, have been lobbying for nearly a year to use public right-of-way. City officials say they are looking for some way to accommodate the trucks.
Omaha, meanwhile, allows food trucks to use public parking as long as they obtain a peddler's permit, identify which spot they plan to use and get approval from the city in advance. City staff members review applications on a case-by-case basis, but won't approve requests that are too close to restaurants — making it extremely difficult find a spot in the Old Market.
In Council Bluffs, food truck operators can park and vend from any public street. But City Attorney Dick Wade said downtown businesses have been raising concerns, which may prompt the city to review the ordinance.
The new wave of gourmet food trucks sweeping the country has produced similar turf battles in other cities, with varying outcomes.
For example, Chicago updated its ordinances last summer, making it illegal for a food truck to park within 200 feet (roughly one-third of a city block) of a restaurant. Food trucks have to install a GPS device so the city can keep tabs on them. Trucks can be fined between $1,000 and $2,000 if they roll too close to a restaurant.
In the past year in New York, the State Supreme Court upheld a law that prohibits vending from metered parking spaces. Food truck operators say the law makes it nearly impossible to find a place to do business in the city.
Los Angeles County, meanwhile, formerly used both bans and restrictions, but lifted them after a successful legal challenge on behalf of the vendors.
Bans and restrictions intended to protect the pocketbooks of one set of business owners over another smack of protectionism and are unconstitutional, said Beth Kregor, director of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, a national legal advocate for street vendors.
City governments have the right and responsibility to make sure food trucks operate safely, but it's wrong to hamstring their ability to compete in a free marketplace, she said.
“Food trucks are classic examples of American entrepreneurship,” Kregor said. “They are starting small, they have great ideas, creative recipes and wonderful experience. What they don't have are big budgets.”
Small budgets or not, they are growing in numbers.
Omaha, for example, has close to 20 food trucks that sell everything from burgers and tacos to jambalaya and veggie samosas, said Terri Wyzgoski, a food and drink specialist with the Douglas County Health Department.
“Two or three years ago, we had only three,” she said.
Council Bluffs has licensed six food trucks and Lincoln has about a half dozen, most of which have turned up over the past two years, said Joyce Jensen, the city's environmental health supervisor.
The operator of Lincoln's first gourmet food truck, Minh Nguyen, has the distinction of running the first food truck to be ticketed for vending on a public street. Because he had obtained all permits and inspections and thought he could legally park on a downtown street, the city attorney waived the citation, he said.
But he continues to seek a change in the ordinance.
While the trucks present a more affordable way to get into business, they have some inherent disadvantages, said Nguyen, who manages a truck called Heoya. Daily roaming, for example, can make a food truck difficult to find for customers who don't use Facebook or Twitter, where truck operators often post their locations. And when rain and temperatures fall, so do sales.
Nguyen and other food truck operators argue that they meet a different need than traditional restaurants, and they can't possibly take away customers who want to be waited on or enjoy a glass of wine with their meals.
“There's enough pieces of the pie for everybody,” he said.
The city of Portland, Ore., reserves a lot where food trucks gather, said Kevin Page, co-owner of a Lincoln truck called A La CARTe. Page attended culinary school in Portland.
“I understand the city doesn't want to just open it up to let us park wherever,” he said. “So give us some spot, sell us a permit and the city can make money and we can make money.”
Perhaps a city-owned lot downtown could be used for regular food truck rallies, he suggested.
It's an idea that has merit and is being explored, said Rick Hoppe, an aide to Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler. Allowing food truck vendors to pay a fee to place a hood over a parking meter for a designated time period also has been considered.
But that could create other problems, Hoppe said. For example, if the city were to allow the trucks on public property, then vendors of other goods and services could make similar requests, Hoppe said. Think velvet Elvis tapestries and Confederate flags.
“It isn't that we don't want to accommodate (food trucks),” he said. “They really do contribute to the quality of life in the city.”
Wagner, the Omaha roaming chef, said he recently launched an association of food truck owners, which has half a dozen members so far. The group intends to seek better access to downtown areas, including the Old Market.
Regardless of what happens, Wagner predicted that food trucks won't be a flash in the pan.
“The food trucks are going to come,” he said. “You can try to keep them out, but they're going to come. The smart thing would be to work with them.”
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