Seattle: Street Food to Get Trucking

Kaosamai Thai food truck in the South Lake Union area.

By Sonia Krishnan | The Seattle Times

Kaosamai Thai food truck in the South Lake Union area.

The idea hit Doug Somerville one day as he was looking out the window of his Kaosamai Thai Restaurant in Fremont.

Every day, he said, he watched a Mexican food truck moving down North 36th Street. Why not do the same thing with Thai food? The concept seemed like a winner, with low overhead and a wider customer reach.

Somerville bought two trucks and started the street-food vending side of his business in 2005. In the years since, as creative cuisine and foodie culture flourished in America, demand has spiked for food from such “roving restaurants.”

Yet, unlike other cities — Portland, for instance — Seattle’s street-food scene has been slow to emerge because of restrictive city laws, city planners say. And officials want to change that.

New legislation is expected to go before the City Council by the end of the month, detailing changes that would make it easier for street-food vendors to set up shop and, in the process, help bring more economic vitality to neighborhoods.

“Urban neighborhoods are where we want our growth,” said Gary Johnson, center-city coordinator for the Department of Planning and Development, which helped craft the proposal. “A street-food scene can help brand a neighborhood in a positive way.”

The recommendations are directed at sidewalk-cart businesses and larger mobile food trucks, some of which essentially are rolling kitchens.

The proposal’s highlights include expanding the type of food sidewalk vendors can sell and allowing larger food trucks to park curbside.

Sidewalk vendors now are limited to mostly selling coffee, popcorn and hot dogs. That’s due to rules approved in the 1980s, when outdoor vending was associated with blight, Johnson said. Street food now is seen as a way to enliven public spaces.

Under the proposed guidelines, “we’re going to allow everything on the push cart except raw proteins,” said Christopher Skilton, health and environmental investigator with the county health department.

If someone wanted to sell, say, chicken skewers, the meat would have to be cooked fully beforehand at a licensed commissary kitchen, Skilton said.

Because selling street food — tacos and burgers, for example — on a public street is prohibited, an owner of a food truck now must negotiate with a private landowner to park at a certain spot for a certain amount of time.

Somerville, for instance, worked out agreements with a Shell station near Seattle Pacific University and a property owner on Eastlake Avenue to sell food at those locations every day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

To put more vendors in high-density urban areas, the Seattle Department of Transportation wants to designate zones where curbside vending would be allowed during particular days and times. Vendors then would apply for a street-use permit to sell food in those spaces. If more than one vendor were interested in a location, a lottery would be held, according to city documents.

Nearly 400 street-food vendors are permitted to operate now in King County, according to Public Health — Seattle & King County.

And these changes could open up the market for many more. But vendors still would have to undergo a rigorous vetting process by the health department, Skilton said.

Take a taco truck. Before any permit is issued, inspectors look to see if the vehicle has a refrigerator unit that can hold food at 41 degrees or cooler, as well as equipment to keep food hot at a minimum of 140 degrees.

A hand-washing sink also is a must, Skilton said.

Skilton, who has worked in food inspection in King County for 11 years, said the rate of violations for mobile-truck vendors and brick-and-mortar restaurants is roughly the same. Sidewalk cart vendors are cited “slightly more,” he added.

It’s not cheap to launch a street-food business. Vendors are at least $1,800 in the hole after paying for plan-review fees, commissary permits and operating permits, Skilton said. That doesn’t include money spent on a cart or truck or the cost to refurbish a vehicle and get it up to code.

And more costs are coming. The new legislation proposes a $146 base fee to park a truck in a new food zone — one of many fees under consideration.

“I had a guy start a hot-dog cart from scratch, and from the time he began the process to the time he sold his first hot dog he was out $7,000,” Skilton said.

The impact of the new legislation on brick-and-mortar restaurants remains unclear. To level the playing field, the proposal includes a requirement that vendors be at least 50 feet from any other food-service businesses, such as restaurants, groceries and convenience stores, Johnson said.

Michael Wells, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, said he’s heard “really split” reactions from restaurant owners.

“You can never prevent competition,” Wells said. “At the same time, [street food] is a natural progression of what’s happened in food culture. Food has become a new way to spend money and be creative and connect with others in the community.

“It’s a cultural shift,” he added. “And Seattle needs to figure out how to deal with that.”