By Richard Thompson | TimesPicayune.com
Some food-truck operators in New Orleans, who have long bemoaned hurdles for navigating the city’s protocol for getting up to code, say they plan to form a nonprofit association that will create a single point of contact as they work to persuade officials to ease some of the rules of the game, like increasing the number of permits issued annually, extending the time a truck can stay in one spot, and expanding hours of operation. The city’s licensing process for food trucks covers the gourmet food trucks that have sprung up in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina as well as a range of other mobile vendors, with wares from produce to snowballs. Food truck operators say that as the local industry has changed, the regulations have become outdated.
Adding to the frustrations, they also say there are sometimes gaps in how the city deals with the regulations; some food truck operators avoid the red tape altogether, defying the rules and hoping for the best.
Rachel Billow, whose La Cocinita food truck serves Latin American food, said she is working with several other mobile food operators to apply for a nonprofit association under 501(c)(6) status, a designation that is used for trade associations like the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. From there, the group plans to ask city officials “for an official interpretation of the laws” governing food trucks before moving forward and requesting meetings with city council members.
“Basically, then we can better address which laws are problematic,” Billow said, adding that the group hopes cut through some of the confusion of the existing regulations to “clarify a few things..”
Andrew Legrand, a Metairie lawyer who has been helping Billow and others complete the nonprofit paperwork, said he believes the move will “get all the food trucks on the same page.”
“We’re at a time when New Orleans has more restaurants than ever before — I think there’s thousands — so why not have food trucks out there kind of contributing to that,” said Legrand, who got involved after reading about their efforts online.
Though the movement to organize food trucks under one organization is still in its early stages in the city, mobile operators have banded together like this elsewhere across the country, said Matt Geller, who runs the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, which formed in early 2010 to help navigate Los Angeles County’s many regulating bodies, including four health departments.
“There was a lot of misinformation,” said Geller, who had worked in restaurants and has a background in law. “Even the regulators didn’t know what was going on.”
The southern California group started with 29 members. Now, it has around 140, and is considering expanding statewide. Geller said he has worked with local officials there to take another look at decades-old regulations that he says had hampered mobile food vending, and led discussions on how they can be configured to get up to speed. The group has also challenged some laws in court, including the proximity that an operator can be to a restaurant, a sticking point that operators in New Orleans would also like to change.
Members of the group pay $50 dues each month, which helps fund the group’s efforts to challenge unfavorable rules and has also been put toward renting lots where vendors can setup shop with one another a few nights a week, often timed in conjunction with special events nearby.
His advice for the burgeoning industry? “I would encourage all food trucks in an area to get together and try to speak in one voice,” he said. “We’re not going to be an underground industry and get overregulated. The trend is growing too fast to fly under the radar.”