The food truck trend is slow to reach here, thanks in part to local legal roadblocks


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If the food truck movement were a race, Pittsburgh would still be tinkering with the engine. But it's only a race on Food Network, on which teams compete for six weeks in what the network calls "a unique coast-to-coast culinary battle."

In real life, food trucks compete for a living against city ordinances that, with a few exceptions, are unfair, even un-American, says Robert Frommer, a staff attorney with the Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C.

The traditional food truck is a metal trailer outside construction sites selling coffee, doughnuts and basic fare. But the recent phenomenon is a gourmet gig on the move, on Twitter and Facebook, specializing in everything from dim sum and lobster rolls to vegan fare, mac-and-cheese and tapas for which a following often lines up before the truck arrives.

Against a burgeoning national culture that is dynamic in Los Angeles, New York and other large cities, Pittsburgh for years has been static.

But in the past two years, business has sprung up around a handful of trucks that are trying to carve out territories in what some perceive to be a hostile atmosphere.

Mr. Frommer said Pittsburgh "has some of the worst laws, but it isn't alone." For one, Chicago prohibits cooking in food trucks. "In city after city, laws that were made for ice cream trucks are outdated."

Pittsburgh permits stationary trucks, mobile trucks and special events. The stationary trucks clustered in Oakland on Bigelow Boulevard and Margaret Morrison Street have a lock on those spots. A few other trucks and carts are scattered about the city. One, Dennis' Lunch House, has a permanent spot across from the Omni William Penn, Downtown.

An event-specific permit is given to a vendor who pays a sponsorship fee to be there, said Mike Radley, the director of Citiparks. "Other vendors don't have the right to sell there." If they are otherwise licensed, they can vend no closer than 500 feet from the event, he said.

The mobile license limits the vendor in time and space -- not more than 30 minutes in one place and not within 500 feet of a vendor or restaurant that sells the same thing.

"We approve [applications] if there is no competition," said John Jennings, acting director of the Bureau of Building Inspections. "I haven't heard anything about changing our policies at all."

Later this month, the Institute for Justice will release a report based on research in which it studied street vending laws in 50 cities. The study was inspired by a court case in El Paso, Texas. El Paso law had kept a food truck from operating within 1,000 feet of a restaurant. "We sued on constitutional basis and prevailed and El Paso changed its laws," Mr. Frommer said.

"We have potential litigation in a number of different cities. An amazing number have similar restrictions.

"Can you imagine saying to a McDonald's that if it's 500 feet from another restaurant that sells hamburgers it can't do business?" he asked.

Restaurant industry spokesmen say lower overhead and start-up costs have fueled the food truck trend in part because of the slow economy. If the food excites foodies, such as Franktuary's hot dogs with unusual toppings, or is nichey, such as Dozen Bake Shop's, whose truck began rolling in May, a following can be relatively easy to build.

Tina Bolin was on Twitter and Facebook with location alerts for her mobile truck, which was part of her Bodacious Bites catering business. She had built a following when she bowed out and sold the truck earlier this year to concentrate on catering.

Dozen's was the only other truck to enter the local scene this year. The Franktuary truck is in its second year, and the Goodie Truck is in its third year of making random stops it announces on Twitter.

The National Restaurant Association projects food truck revenues will exceed $630 million this year, up 3.6 percent from 2010. The nation's entire restaurant revenue is estimated to grow by just 2.5 percent.

Entrepreneurs on wheels, though, still are treated like second-class citizens, said Mr. Frommer, "subject to burdensome restrictions that protect bricks-and-mortar businesses from competition. America is based on the embrace of competition. This is an unjust obstacle to the right to earn an honest living, to economic liberty."

Tim Tobitsch, who owns the Franktuary truck with Megan Lindsey, said the mobile food permit requirement that you move every 30 minutes while on public property makes it almost impossible to serve a large lunch crowd. And if you have a deep fryer, forget it.

"With a mobile permit, you're not allowed to be on Butler or East Carson because you are competition to existing restaurants," he said, "so desirable places are out.

"I'd love to find a place near [Consol Energy Center], but the rules say I can't be within 200 feet of a sporting event. Every time you figure out an angle, they've got it covered."

In addition, he said, the process "is very expensive and very slow." A yearly license, which costs $700, expires every Jan. 31 regardless of when it is issued, so someone who is ready to launch in October is stymied. Does he pay $700 in September and $700 in January or sit without income for four to five months?

"It took three months from the time we went to zoning before we had a hearing," Mr. Tobitsch said. "After the hearing, another 45 days to hear back delayed the permit until early November."

In addition, hearings cost a non-refundable $500 "at the risk of not being approved," he said. Franktuary even had to have a hearing for the right to park on private property, he said.

Last summer, he and Ms. Lindsey were looking for a station on private property, with plans to let people know where to find them on Twitter and Facebook. They now have an arrangement with the Hot Metal Faith Community at 27th and Jane streets on the South Side on Tuesday and Thursday, roughly from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. On Wednesdays and most Fridays, the truck sets up at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland.

Franktuary's truck has had gigs at the Mattress Factory and on movie sets. Last summer's movie-set gigs "kept us in the black," Mr. Tobitsch said.

Regulations may be designed to keep food trucks from competing with existing restaurants, but the food truck owners themselves "are trying to collaborate," said Mr. Tobitsch, who, with Ms. Lindsey, also runs a bricks-and-mortar restaurant Downtown.

Franktuary and the Dozen truck have set up together and are talking about teaming up for future gigs.

James Gray, owner of Dozen Bake Shop, bought Ms. Bolin's Bodacious Bites truck last winter.

Last year, Ms. Bolin said she was having "a lot of fun" and "getting very busy," but she was also frustrated that the pace of change and public demand was being dragged down by outdated regulations.

She got some gigs on private property, setting up at WPXI-TV to serve lunch, at Oakmont/Verona's light-up night, at Friendship's Unblurred Fridays, Our Lady of the Angels Flea Market in Lawrenceville and in the parking lot at the Parador Inn in Allegheny West before Steelers games.

"I didn't think it would take so long to get through the health department red tape, but as soon as I started going out, people asked me to come here, come there. There was a lot of community support and businesses have helped me get into parking lots."

But she called the mobile life quits, she said, because "it was too expensive and too hard to follow the law. It was getting ridiculous to have a truck full of food that you had to move every 30 minutes. It was also still kind of a foreign idea in the city. A lot of people were just staring at it."

Mr. Gray, though, said he was encouraged after talking to Mr. Tobitsch and Ms. Lindsey, "and the price was right on the truck."

On the first of June, Dozen took an early test run, Tweeting where it was going to be, but having to move every half hour is discouraging, Mr. Gray said. "I couldn't make any money that way. If I had a line it'd take me longer than that to serve them all.

"We'll see how it goes."

Randy Cinski, a vegan chef in Butler County who hopes to get into the Pittsburgh scene this fall, said she "always thought Point State Park would be a beautiful place to sell. I would think it would encourage people to use the park more, too.

"I want to find a place where people could count on us to be. We'd like to get one or two days in the city."

In the Hot Metal Faith Community's parking lot one day this month, a line of followers and newcomers to the Franktuary truck formed. The choices included a hot dog topped with bacon, mashed potatoes and tomato-corn relish; a dog topped with grilled pineapple, teriyaki sauce, bacon and green onion; a tofu vegan frank; and, a new item inspired by Canadian taste, poutine -- fries topped with local cheese curds and vegan brown gravy.

Emily Harding of Sharpsburg was there with her son. "We follow them religiously," she said. "We saw on Facebook they were going to be here so I had to come and have the poutine.

"I think the food truck is reinventing itself," she said. "This is a great option."

A first-time visitor, Art Hoffmann drove from his job in Green Tree to try the dog with bacon, mashed potato and corn relish. "It sounded interesting," he said. "Not something you can get on the next corner."

In some cities, corners are actually getting crowded. The proliferation of food trucks in Los Angeles has some of the original entrepreneurs sniping at what they consider to be wanna-bes lowering the standards.

The most rapid transformation may be in Boston, where Boston.com reports that, two years ago, "just mentioning 'Boston' and 'food truck scene' in the same sentence would have been laughable; thick reams of red tape prevented entrepreneurs from setting up shop within the city limits.

"Then an initiative led by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, coupled with a measure passed by the City Council earlier this year, made it significantly easier for vendors to clear the regulatory hurdles. As a result, Boston is poised to become one of the nation's newest food truck capitals. In fact, it may already deserve that designation: Since around this time last year, about 30 mobile eateries have been operating in Boston and Cambridge. And Boston will add 12 to 20 new vendors by next spring."

Last August, Boston held its first Food Truck Festival.

Mr. Tobitsch is puzzled as to why the law seems so dismissive of Pittsburgh's effort to grow a food truck culture.

"We're buying grass-fed beef, we're serving neighborhoods, we don't serve alcohol and we're family friendly," he said. "Plus competition should be a good thing, right?"


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk .


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