Food Trucks face new regulations, enforcement of old ordinances

A hearing about the extension of the 2010 Food Truck Pilot Program is at 2 PM today at City Hall. Food trucks have been the obsession of the Cincinnati food community– new ones seem to pop up every week– but their future is in jeopardy with the changes to the Food Truck Pilot program, as well as the recent enforcement of an out-of-date ordinance dating to the late 70s.

The Food Truck pilot program, initiated in June of 2010, allowed food trucks and trailers to provide food in several zones around the city: one on Court Street, one at Fifth and Race, one at Sawyer Point, and one at the L&N Loop, north of Pete Rose Way. The ordinance defines operating hours as 6:30 AM-3:30 AM, except for Court Street, which is only from 6 AM-3 PM. Fees ranged from $400 a year for a trailer and $800 for a larger truck. Electricity was provided.

Changes, however, are coming, and will be discussed at a public hearing today. These changes include:

  • no more tiered pricing, and the top-end pricing is raised $200 to $1000
  • More licenses available (a total of 25)
  • No use of city electrical outlets on Court Street

I talked with Tom Acito, one of the first food truck vendors with Cafe de Wheels, about these changes. He had several concerns, including the large number of licenses, but small number of viable truck spaces, and lack of electrical outlets. “There are only eight spots that are truly viable for food trucks,” said Acito, referring to the distant outposts of L&N and Sawyer Point. “And we make 40% of our income on Friday afternoons. There’s a hit or miss chance of being able to park where the foot traffic is, and it causes tension.” There has been no expansion of locations. “We asked for a spot near P&G, or the ballparks, or near clubs: where the people are,” instead of places with little foot traffic.

There are additional roadblocks put up by the city. Though the health department has been “very helpful and [they] work with us,” said Acito, other parts of the City’s bureaucracy have been less than cooperative. “The Park Board wants to charge us $400 just for [a permit for] the Northside Fourth of July festival. The city doesn’t allow us to participate in events like Taste [of Cincinnati] or Oktoberfest because we don’t have a booth. We are our own booth!” Though the ordinance allowing food trucks allows late night hours, recently police have started to enforce an ordinance from the late 70s, 839-11b, which states that vendors cannot operate after midnight. On a recent Friday night, Acito and Cafe de Wheels were asked by police to close up shop as a line formed outside of The Drinkery in OTR. “The police are just doing their job, but [that ordinance] is outdated,” said Acito. “A big hunk of my income comes from late nights.”

Several vendors, whom Acito declined to name, are reconsidering renewing their licenses after this year, based on limited space, higher fees, and lack of electric. “The city looks at us as cash cows,” said Acito. “But all of us have spouses who hold down full-time jobs. I don’t pay myself much each week.”

The regulations around food trucks are a test of Cincinnati as a city: can we support non-traditional food services? Can we rebuild entertainment districts with bars and mobile food options as well as late-night, full-service restaurants? Can Cincinnati rethink its outdated ordinances around late-night vending? Can we embrace what many other cities have already? Head to City Hall at 12 PM and voice your support for food trucks.