Boulder Should Find Compromises & Allow Food Trucks

Rayme Rossello serves food to one of her regular customers on East Pearl Street in Boulder on Thursday. Rossello is the owner of the big pink Comida food truck that sells Mexican food around Boulder. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

by Sean Maher | DailyCamera.com

Executive Director of the Downtown Boulder Business Improvement District

From New York to Portland, food trucks are sweeping the country. In the last year, the number in Denver has increased from six to nearly 50. Los Angeles has more than 9,000 trucks on the streets. These are not the roach coaches of old hawking hot dogs and cheap burritos at construction sites. The new generation is serving up haute cuisine — everything from duck tacos to crème brulee. They are a big hit with urban hipsters and office workers looking for a tasty lunch.

So how come Boulder has so few trucks to choose from? How did the “Foodiest Town in America” get left behind in the latest food craze? The answer is simple. They are not legal here. Boulder’s rules were written decades ago when food trucks were not cool. So they are banned from operating here.

On Tuesday night, the Boulder City Council will consider changing the rules to allow the trucks. Seems like an easy call. Let them hit the road and satisfy our craving for gourmet street food.

Rayme Rossello serves food to one of her regular customers on East Pearl Street in Boulder on Thursday. Rossello is the owner of the big pink Comida food truck that sells Mexican food around Boulder. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Sure the trucks bring new menu choices and new energy to the streets. But like all good things, too much can be too much. I spent some time chatting with folks in other cities about the pros and cons of the trucks. Here are a few of the lessons learned in L.A. and Santa Monica that Boulder would be smart to heed.

Streetscape. Boulder has a strict sign code that limits the size and visibility of signs for businesses. The intent is to create an attractive streetscape. Food trucks have no such limits and operators can cover their vehicles with huge graphics and bright colors to promote themselves. In Santa Monica, this has forced some restaurants to buy their own trucks — not to sell from but to use as signage to compete with the highly visible food trucks. The result is graphic overload that dominates the scene and makes the attractive streetscape intended by sign codes all but invisible.

Fairness. The start-up cost for a restaurant can hit $1 million. Then there is monthly rent and property taxes of $8,000 to $15,000 per month. The taxes pay to market downtown, keep it clean and pay for extra police to keep it safe. Trucks can start up and operate for a tiny fraction of these costs and they pay no downtown property tax. Is it fair for them to get all the advantages of a high traffic location while shouldering none of the cost to generate that traffic?

Proliferation. In addition to food, California now has mobile shoe stores and clothing trucks complete with dressing rooms. One downtown official noted this proliferation of trucks is starting to impact the number of people willing to invest in storefront businesses of any kind.

So while unlimited access for food trucks sounds great, it is just not that simple. City councils in communities without limits are now scrambling to deal with these issues. Boulder city staffers have done their research, learned from the experience of these other cities and crafted an ordinance that makes sense.

Under their proposal, food trucks can operate in business districts (including downtown) as long as they are on private property and not within 100 feet of an existing restaurant. This is not the total green light truck owners would prefer and it is not the total ban that some restaurants would like to see. However, it strikes a reasonable balance between the rights of trucks to operate and the need to be fair to existing small businesses. I hope our City Council will agree and adopt this reasonable compromise.

Sean Maher is the Executive Director of the Downtown Boulder Business Improvement District. He can be reached at sean@dbi.org.