Charlotte: City Food Truck Rules Still Leave a Bad Taste

By February 2009, Taqueria Lety, at North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road, was one of the few taco trucks still operating. 2009 observer file photo - DIEDRA LAIRD



By February 2009, Taqueria Lety, at North Tryon Street and Sugar Creek Road, was one of the few taco trucks still operating. 2009 observer file photo - DIEDRA LAIRD

Why squelch small businesses? ‘Carne asada is not a crime.’

Charlotte’s musicians, citing artistry and creativity, pushed city officials to back off a proposed ban on amplified outdoor live music. Let us hope Charlotte’s foodies and food truck fans succeed in forcing revisions to an ill-considered 2008 city measure restricting taco trucks.

When the City Council tightened the ordinance governing mobile food vendors, council members said they didn’t intend to drive the trucks out of business. They were reacting, they said, to neighbors’ complaints about traffic, noise and crime. In immigrant-heavy parts of the city, such as Central Avenue and South Boulevard, Latino vendors had a thriving business feeding late-night construction workers and others.

Then the city squelched them. Mobile food vendors now must stay 400 feet away from residential property and from each other. They can’t stay in any spot longer than three months. As before, they can’t operate after 9 p.m., although previously that wasn’t very strictly enforced.

Compare that one-size-fits-all squelching to what happened last month as city officials again struggled with an issue that required them to balance differing needs of city residents and urban businesses: Loud music at some bars was making life unpleasant for people living nearby.

At first, the city proposed banning any live outdoor amplified music within 400 feet of residential zoning. Angry howls erupted from musicians, bars and patrons. City officials were accused of being too stodgy, of trying to squelch creativity. The city wisely pulled back. Instead, City Attorney Mac McCarley said, the city will explore revisions that would aim the restrictions at businesses that are causing problems and let those that aren’t keep operating as before.

Why not take that same approach to food trucks? The city’s 2008 approach was, at a minimum, ham-handed, and – while city officials denied this accusation – it looked to many to be biased against Latinos. After all, food carts in uptown Charlotte are allowed to operate any time.

A better idea would have been to clamp down on specific trucks causing problems – just as the city says it will do with noisy bars. After all, in many cities food vendors are valuable eyes on the street, reporting criminals and helping maintain order.

Advocates want the city to reconsider. An online petition had drawn 240 signatures by Friday. Before the November 2008 change, the advocates say, about 50 taco trucks operated in the Charlotte area. Now about seven do. An Observer report in March 2009 found that on a 2-mile stretch of Central Avenue, the number of taco trucks had dwindled from 10 to one or two. It’s likely the recession and high local jobless rate, especially among construction workers, have contributed to some trucks’ closings. Even so, the restrictions surely helped in killing off business.

The city is squelching more than Latino businesses. Food trucks are a sizzling trend in creative cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Nashville and Durham. New York Times food writer John T. Edge raved about Austin’s taco trucks in an article a year ago.

In Charlotte? Well, we’ve turned most of our taco truck operators into criminals or run them out of business. So much for devotees of ethnic food, for urban pioneering, for small entrepreneurs. The too-strict taco truck rules still leave a bad taste.