City Hall Hustle: Go Foodie and Multiply

Council sings happy trailers to you

Throw a stone – or better yet, a cupcake – anywhere in Austin, and you're likely to hit a food trailer. It ain't exactly news that the trailer food scene has exploded over the last few years, with vendors offering everything from donuts, tacos, and paninis to more exotic fare like pork-belly buns, bánh mì sandwiches, and lamb kebabs. Call it a sign of the recession, or of the lowered barriers to entry in the 21st century, but plenty of local foodies are setting up quickly and inexpensively to bring eats to the masses.

Today (Thursday) the issue comes to City Council, and no, they're not parking a taco truck on Second Street. (Well, maybe they are, but the Hustle hasn't checked on Twitter yet.) Instead, newly drafted regulations are coming before council. While nothing as onerous as the rules initially proposed in the spring, the changes will affect how trailers do business and the fees they pay to the city.

Three items are headed to council: Item 24 levies an annual $125 fee on mobile vendors for Fire Department inspection of the use, handling, transportation, and storage of liquefied petroleum gas used to fire some establishments' grills and burners. Item 29 calls for an additional, annual $125 application fee, estimated to bring in at least $260,000, to be earmarked for three new Health and Human Services staffers to oversee the swelling trailer ranks: two sanitarians, or health inspectors, and a customer service position to process vendor applications.

Item 28 contains the broadest-reaching measures, six in all: the aforementioned Fire Department inspection; proof of Texas sales tax and use permit, which reputable vendors should have already; written proof that restrooms are available at the site, usually from an agreeable abutting business or portable toilets on-site using accredited waste haulers; mandatory itineraries for both truly mobile trucks and stationary trailers and booths (the latter simply stating they plan to stay put where they are); and two items related to the biggest hang-up from the last round of trailer regulations: central preparation facilities, more commonly known as commissaries. These require a notarized agreement between vendor and commissary, and also documentation of commissary usage in a vendor's monthly log.

The prior quandary in the spring dealt with the definition of a commissary. Snappy Snacks proprietor Tom Ramsey, who jump-started the current round of regulation a few years back after delivering several proposals to the city, took the term to mean both a kitchen and a place to prep and clean his vehicle, as his company operates truly mobile trucks; that requirement, however, had little bearing on those stationary trailers that don't have tires and chassis to clean, raising the possibility that commissary regulation could throw the trailer field into disarray (see "Trailer Snack Smackdown," May 13; and "Mobile Food," Food, Aug. 20).

However, it looks like the language has caught up. At the July 22 City Council Public Health and Human Services Committee meeting, the last stop for the proposed regs before they wound their way to the entire council, the committee had begun differentiating between unrestricted vendors (those allowed to cook food on-site) that are truly mobile, like Snappy Snacks, and unrestricted fixed vendors, which make up the bulk of the trailer scene. It's an evolution from the previous, overly blunt distinction between unrestricted vendors and restricted vendors that only serve prepackaged food, like ice-cream trucks. So your favorite trailer shouldn't have any trouble meeting the commissary requirements; according to state code, a commissary for a fixed trailer can be any permitted restaurant kitchen. Sue Simons, supervisor of Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department's Mobile Vendor Program says there are almost as many different setups as there are mobiles – estimated to hit 1,350 in October. "Their central commissary must be a permitted food enterprise," Simons said. "You cannot prepare food in a kitchen that is not licensed and inspected by the health department."

Ultimately, the proposals are far less intrusive than many in the mobile community feared earlier this year. Some questions still remain, e.g., how much advance notice is required in delivering the itineraries of truly mobile vendors. But, like the omnipresent eateries, new questions continue to pop up: HHSD punted on whether to require proof of product liability insurance for vendors (which some already carry), meaning that issue may return in the future. Likewise, the agenda backup states, "A growing issue is the formation of mobile food vendor courts on vacant land where no development approvals are required," going on to cite parking and permitting issues; the Code Compliance Department has recommended the city review rules for vendors on undeveloped tracts.

It's almost getting to be a question of space as the field's expanded; if keeping with a historic 20% annual increase in applications, Simons estimates there'll be some 1,620 mobile vendors in 2011 and 2,198 in 2012.

That's a lot of cupcakes.

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mobile vendors, City Council, Tom Ramsey, Health and Human Services

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