Are Other Cities’ Food Cart Rules an Omen for Charlottesville?

Charlottesville, VA

Among the amenities popping up in Charlottesville because of its growth is the increasing number of food carts or trucks. Walk downtown today and you’ll find smoke rising and lines of people forming from several, which means that Charlottesville has acquired something already bringing cachet to America’s larger cities.

Indeed, in the cities where trendiness is now associated with economic development, food carts have become the latest creative canvas. Far from the rinky-dink carts of lore—think New York City’s hot dogs stands—the trucks today provide cuisines better fitted for seated restaurants. Having lived the last year in West Coast cities, I ran into ones selling everything from jambalaya, to sushi, to wood-fired pizza. And the carts were often artworks in themselves, with murals or elaborate detailing etched on their sides.

The flagship city for such trucks is Portland, where they are clustered by the dozens on otherwise empty lots. This provides locals not only with more dining options, but with spaces that become crowded and vibrant during lunch hour. Together they have added, along with bike lanes and microbreweries, to the city’s famously boutique atmosphere; while remaining affordable to low-income people, who might otherwise be priced out of the food downtown.

But in some cities the government has, like with other things, been the last to recognize their value, and either discouraged them, or regulated them out of existence. New York controls the expansion of these trucks by limiting the permits, which creates an expensive black market, and corporatizes a traditionally entrepreneurial industry. In L.A. and D.C. they are also restricted based on size and location. But the worst example is Chicago, which ironically pioneered the concept of street food back when it was a beef capital. Recently it passed an ordinance preventing carts from locating within 200 feet of a restaurant, effectively banning them from the city’s most intensive areas. It also required owners to pay thousands for GPS tracking, so the city can determine if they are violating this rule.

Such regulations are often justified for health reasons, but really serve as protectionism for brick-and-mortar restaurants, which have formed powerful lobbies in many cities. The regulations ignore the fact that carts mostly serve those who want smaller and faster meals than restaurants would otherwise provide. And they ignore the role carts play as a starting point for culinary entrepreneurs—many of whom eventually open restaurants themselves.

This is what makes the current discussion about them in Charlottesville so important. Because local food trucks don’t now have specific regulations, they’re illegal everywhere except on the downtown pedestrian mall and on side-street parking. New ones were recently written by zoning administrator Read Brodhead, and will be tweaked by the planning commission. They will encourage the opening of more carts by allowing them to be leased on privately-owned commercial land. But I became skeptical, after both the commission meeting and my interview with Brodhead, when hearing what they may also include—austere size restrictions, orders to stay off the grass, and bans on seating. Even worse, the regulations may severely limit the number of carts allowed on one lot, preventing the aforementioned “clusters”.

Brodhead justified these restrictions by saying they could always be changed according to future needs. But his statement didn’t account for how glacially existing regulations change anywhere, once facing neighborhood resistance, competing businesses, and fanatical public officials. I asked him if a more lenient approach would be a better way to start, particularly for the single-lot limit, and got an answer that reflected typical bureaucratic thinking.

“Charlottesville isn’t Portland…I don’t think that this town can sustain 50 food trucks.”

But I don’t see why his thoughts matter here, since consumers will—or at least should be able to—determine this for themselves. His mindset explains why so many regulations, whether involving food carts or not, eventually become needless and arbitrary. It’s because the predictive powers of individual officials—and the capacity for bureaucracies to reform laws based on new information—is outpaced by dynamic market changes. This was summarized, unwittingly, in the latest meeting, when one commissioner mentioned a photo he once saw of a cart that operated from inside a double-decker bus—surely a reference to Portland’s legendary Grilled Cheese Grill. Another commissioner, alluding to the proposed height limits in Brodhead’s regulations, factitiously asked “was it more than 10’6”?”

Which brings me to my point: that bus is of course more than 10’6”, which means that despite being harmless it may not, along with other creative food cart styles, ever be allowed in Charlottesville.


1 Comment

  1. Bursting bubbles.

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