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Road rules; Food truck operators are awaiting new regulations, and restaurateurs hope the law doesn't create unfair competition

Buffalo's food truck population has grown in the past year from one to five.

Four trucks regularly feed customers barbecued beef brisket, pulled pork, Mexican tacos and other dishes inside city limits, while a fifth truck dispenses coffee and sweets.

In places like New York City, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Portland, eager chefs without the money for restaurant leases have turned to mobile vending as an easier way to get their dishes to the masses.

Will food trucks, one of the nation's hottest food service trends, truly catch on in Buffalo? A big part of the answer could come next month, when a rewritten law governing food truck operations returns to the Common Council for consideration.

"When we come back into session after the middle of September, I think it'll be something very much discussed and debated," said North District Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr.

On July 28, the Buffalo Common Council tabled a proposed food truck law offered by Golombek after representatives of several large, locally owned fast-food restaurants complained that it did not do enough to regulate the trucks, while opening their restaurants up to unfair competition.

"They have the ability to pull up in front of anybody's restaurant at any given time of the day, and shame on them if they didn't want to pull up at peak hour," said Mark Campanella, Just Pizza's vice president of marketing and franchise development. "Then pull away and count their money."

But has that ever happened in Buffalo? Campanella, like other restaurant professionals interviewed for this story, didn't know of any instances. Truck operators said they weren't looking to pick fights with establishment restaurants, either.

"We're not trying to take out [anyone]," said Pete Cimino of Lloyd, the taco truck. "We just wanted to be open, like food trucks are in other cities, and it's not too much to ask."

Despite this theoretically being an open city without a specific food truck law, city officials have made clear that food trucks need vending permits to sell anything, operators said. Food trucks also must pass mandatory Health Department inspections, and so do the kitchens they use to prepare food.

From a practical standpoint, food trucks also need a host -- a private property owner or agency like Buffalo Place -- to grant them permission to park. Kathleen Haggerty, owner of the Whole Hog truck, found out the hard way over Memorial Day weekend, when a police officer ordered her to close or be towed as she sold braised pork sandwiches in the Holley Farms parking lot on Allen Street.

Haggerty said she had to straighten out the permit paperwork, and returned to Allen Street last week for the Infringement Festival. "The law is not written yet that allows you to just be on a street, open up your door and vend," said Haggerty. In the meantime, she said, "I've got a beautiful spot on Allen and I'll be vending throughout the weekend."

It would hurt restaurants if food trucks can cherry-pick their overflow crowd and just start up and drive away when a crowd thins, Campanella said. "Meanwhile, we have a place where we're open seven days a week, 365 days a year. We pay our property taxes and have to make sure we're up to snuff."

But food trucks indirectly pay property taxes, too, just like any restaurateur paying a landlord, Haggerty pointed out. Mobile operators have to rent health-inspected kitchens, like the one she rents at a local restaurant, to make the food their trucks dispense.

Exactly what requirements food trucks faced were unclear at the July 28 hearing, Campanella said. "We couldn't get answers from the city attorney there that day. Nobody knows what the restrictions or guidelines are for it yet."

Golombek called that a "fair criticism," though the proposed food truck law was hardly secret, receiving front-page coverage in The Buffalo News and elsewhere.

"What I was trying to do was more of a pilot project with about six trucks," said Golombek. "Give them half a year, then re-evaluate in January, with everybody involved."

Now, he'll look forward to bringing the revised measure back in September.

Restaurant owners and truck owners agree that some food truck law is needed. The devil is in the details, though, starting with where trucks will be allowed to serve. Golombek's proposal, mirroring those from other cities, banned food trucks from serving closer than 100 feet from an open restaurant, and 500 feet from a festival.

Unacceptable, said Campanella and other restaurateurs who spoke July 28. The idea of a 500-foot exclusion zone was floated, to truck owners' dismay. That's essentially a ban from nightlife zones on Elmwood Avenue, Allen Street and Hertel Avenue, they said.

Campanella said he's not against food trucks in general, just unregulated, unrestricted food truck operations. "At the end of the day in any industry you need regulations, guidelines," he said. "You need to protect the business, you need to protect the public."

Plus, he agreed, he doesn't want them anywhere near his place.

"And I don't want them near any other restaurant, either," Campanella said. "I mean, competition is competition, but brick and mortar competition isn't the same as against a food truck."

He suggested the city not allow trucks to roam, instead using vacant property to establish food truck zones. Food trucks are currently operating in such clusters in Seattle, he noted.

Seattle just passed its first food truck law last month, in fact. It allows food trucks to operate at least 50 feet away from existing food businesses. Operators of about 25 gourmet food trucks have voluntarily clustered together on private property, but the new law allows them access to parking spots in commercial and mixed-use areas.

The exact parking spots have to be approved by Seattle parking authorities, who will then lease them to trucks at $9 per four hours.

In Buffalo, the rules have yet to be written.

Lloyd's Cimino said he was "frustrated, but hopeful" that the process will result in a workable law, and "extremely grateful" for the outpouring of support from customers and fans. It's kept the Lloyd team going, he said, and as long as the customers want them, Lloyd will keep serving.


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