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Meals on wheels 

After months of debate, the New Orleans City Council is set to vote early next week on a new set of ordinances regulating food trucks. The exhaustive effort has been a pet project of Council President Stacy Head, who has spearheaded the move to update food truck legislation in the city. At the outset, we note that the rules governing food trucks have remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, even though the trucks' popularity has grown exponentially in recent years.

  Head suggests a one-year pilot program. Her proposed ordinances have seen plenty of tweaks already after input by brick-and-mortar restaurateurs, the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), city Health Department Director Dr. Karen DeSalvo and others. The latest versions address most but not all of the concerns raised by critics of expanding food trucks' presence in New Orleans.

  Current law requires food trucks to park no closer than 600 feet to existing restaurants — the equivalent of two football fields. Head had sought to shorten that to 50 feet, but later changed it to 100 feet after restaurateurs objected, saying trucks that close to their front doors could lure away business.

  The law today also prohibits trucks in the French Quarter and much of the CBD. The proposed regulations would expand the "no food truck" footprint to include all of the French Quarter and CBD up to Howard Avenue, as well as the main strip of the Frenchmen Street club corridor. Banning food trucks from a wide swath of downtown seems fair to the hundreds of existing restaurants in the city's core.

  For their part, local food truck operators have chafed under a law that limits them to no more than 45 minutes in any one location. Many cities with a bustling food truck industry have established "pods" — semi-dedicated lots where groups of trucks set up for days or weeks, often in close proximity to restaurants. Head's proposal seeks to meet the concerns of both groups; it would allow food trucks four hours to set up and serve food in any one location before having to move on.

  LRA members have noted that food trucks typically don't pay exorbitant property taxes and — because they are mobile — are not easily subjected to legally permitted spot inspections by the state Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH). Food truck operators reply that they park and set up in many of the same places week after week — they want the public to find them and use social media to broadcast their locations. While it's true that food trucks have an advantage over full-service restaurants in that they require much lower overheads and initial investments, the same is true of other food-related businesses, including sandwich, takeout and hot lunch counters in neighborhood stores.

  Others have raised concerns that food trucks don't provide bathroom access and aren't required to have exterior sinks for customer hand-washing. On that score, the assistant secretary of DHH wrote to the council last month, saying, "Our office will continue to inspect all food establishments and enforce the state's sanitary code, regardless of business model."

  The debate has seen its share of misinformation. For example, it was wrongly reported that food trucks are not required to carry insurance; they are so required. They also must remit the same sales taxes charged by restaurants.

  New Orleans is unlike any other American city. That's true of its food truck culture as well. Lacking semi-permanent "pods," trucks have organized "roundups" in various neighborhoods, including the Oretha Castle Haley corridor and along St. Claude Avenue, where food options are limited. Some bars have enthusiastically partnered with food trucks; the Taceaux Loceaux truck is a fixture outside Dos Jefes Cigar Bar many evenings, and the new Publiq House on Freret Street has an adjacent parking area specifically to welcome food trucks.

  New Orleans has always prided itself on its culinary ingenuity, and New Orleanians on their insatiable appetite for good food, be it haute cuisine or a drippy po-boy, white beans and rice or white-tablecloth fare. "We've learned in post-Katrina New Orleans that restaurants do well when other restaurants do well," Head told Gambit last year. Her proposed food truck regulations strike us as a fair compromise, and they deserve to be given a chance as a pilot program.

Correction: In last week's Gambit, we incorrectly stated that a lawsuit brought by the so-called fiscal hawks against Gov. Bobby Jindal's current-year budget had been dismissed. That lawsuit is still pending in the pretrial phase. We apologize for the error.


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