Why Baltimore could drive food trucks to the 'burbs

May 18, 2011

In the week since it threatened to shut down Baltimore food trucks, City Hall has done little to live up to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's tweet:  “My administration will support Food Trucks in Baltimore.”

After being told she needed a street-vendor's license -- a new, unannounced requirement for food truckers -- Irene Smith of Souper Freaks soup truck went to apply. She was handed a copy of city regulations prohibiting food trucks from operating downtown, where the trucks often do their best business.

The rule is a new one, adopted in the past three months by the city’s Street Vendors Board, a body that until recently claimed to have no jurisdiction over food trucks.

Bill Irvin, director of operations for the Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon, appeared before that board before his truck first hit the road in August 2009, and was told his on-street operation did not fall under its purview.

“You’re not on the sidewalk, you’re on the street,” he said the board told him then.

Alvin O. Gillard, head of the street vendor’s board, said the city solicitor determined early this year that the board should oversee food trucks. The newly empowered board then decided to ban the trucks from downtown because of complaints from restaurateurs, he said.

“Within that [downtown] footprint, it’s fairly difficult to find a spot that would allow 300 feet before you find a retail establishment that’s not selling some of these products,” he said.

There are certainly areas of the city — Fells Point, Hampden — that are more densely populated with restaurants than parts of downtown. So long as they are not within 300 feet of a restaurant selling similar foods, a rule food-truck operators knew they had to live by from the start, why shouldn’t they be allowed to operate downtown? Isn’t this changing the rules in the middle of the game?

Gillard says no, because the game is just getting started. A mayoral fellow (a college or graduate student who works at City Hall for the summer) will soon study how other cities have handled food trucks, he said. The board will reconsider the downtown ban and other truck rules after receiving the fellow’s report, he said.

“We’re just really trying to get a handle on this whole food-truck phenomenon,” he said, adding that the city won’t enforce the downtown ban until June 1.

As that deadline approaches, Irvin said he still hadn’t received any word from the city that he needs a street vendor’s license or that he can no longer sell downtown.

“No one’s sent a letter that it’s been changed,” he said.

Compare that to the treatment he’s getting from Baltimore County. Officials there reached out to Irvin and other food truck vendors recently, inviting them to set up once a week in front of the courthouse, he said.

“They want to set up Food Truck Tuesdays,” Irvin said. “They welcome us. They’re like, ‘Bring it on.’”

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