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Food trucks' foes leave a bad taste

Talk about typical Buffalo.

Entrepreneurs bring a hip food scene to the city on wheels, serve up fresh cuisine and develop a devoted following.

How do the powers that be respond? They try to put the brakes on.

Food trucks have energized the city's lunch scene. People stand in lines a dozen deep for a tomatillo pork taco or a fresh potato and parsley salad. Neighborhoods that once looked like dead zones buzz with activity.

It's a fresh idea from the likes of Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore., and it's got Buffalonians checking their Twitter feeds for the latest location of these lunch counters on wheels.

But with success, inevitably comes spite.

That's what we saw last week when one of the city's biggest landowners, Carl Paladino, called for an end to the food truck craze. His comments smacked of petty protest to block competition before the engine even warms up.

Paladino, who rents space to Charlie the Butcher and Just Pizza in his Ellicott Square, called it "patently unfair" that food vendors could "park out front and put one of our tenants out of business."

What's patently unfair isn't the way the food trucks are doing business. It's the way Paladino and others are bent on putting the kibosh on a new idea by slinging around scenarios that simply aren't true.

First, there's the assertion that these trucks will pull in front of a local restaurant and siphon off customers. This simply isn't happening. Vendors like Lloyd the taco truck and the Whole Hog have found a niche where neighborhood lunch options are sparse, and they've supported a proposal that includes a 100-foot buffer zone for open restaurants.

"We're not trying to poach customers from people," said Christopher Taylor, who operates Roaming Buffalo. "We go to places where there aren't restaurants. That's where were going to get the biggest crowd."

Second, is the claim that the trucks don't pay taxes. This, too, is misleading.

Food trucks must use a health-inspected commercial kitchen to prepare foods and, like many restaurants, indirectly pay property taxes through rent. They're also subject to payroll taxes, insurance and all the other costs of doing business in New York.

It's one thing to set out rules to govern the health and safety of roving food trucks. It's another to try to use those regulations in the name of stopping competition.

The laws currently on the city's books -- outside of a downtown business improvement district managed by Buffalo Place -- don't adequately address how this new type of food truck can operate on public property.

The vendors didn't exploit the city's lack of legal code. Instead, they tried to work with lawmakers to develop a law modeled after what's worked in other cities.

Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. brought this bill forward earlier this summer, but the Council balked, and a couple of big takeout establishments spent the late-summer recess lobbying for protection.

It's a sad lesson in Democracy when a few can use their clout to stifle new business.

City lawmakers can still take up the bill, and Peter Cimino, of Lloyd the taco truck, sees it as "a true test of the nature of Buffalo."

"It would be very refreshing if they actually listened to the public," Cimino said of lawmakers.

People have made it clear they want food trucks. Long lines develop when the food is tasty -- whether on wheels or not.

The food trucks aren't asking for a dime. They don't want a free lunch or even a tax break.

All they're asking is that the rules be written down, fair and square, so they can get on with serving up good food.


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