Food truck operators are asking the City Council to put the brakes on a proposed ordinance that would ban food trucks from operating within 1,000 feet of brick and mortar restaurants.
The City Council's Safety Services and Licensing Committee on Monday approved the ordinance, sending it to the full council for a vote at the end of the month.
Councilman Richard Santamaria said the ordinance is admittedly a bit of protectionism, but that's the point — established restaurants pay a lot in taxes and food trucks could steal business from them, he said.
"It's just fair," Santamaria said, noting the law used to prohibit food trucks from operating within 1,000 feet of a restaurant, but it was rescinded a few years ago when one particular vendor pressured his city council member.
"We're just putting it back in," Santamaria said. "Right now, there's no radius and you can put a hot dog cart in front of Spikes."
Food truck vendors say not so fast.
"This is a profoundly unfair ordinance," said Nicole Anderson, the owner of a coffee truck that she has registered in Cranston but sells her wares in Providence because that city has been encouraging food trucks.
"With a 1,000 feet radius, I'm at a loss to understand where there is a place for a food vendor to operate," Anderson said. "If I'm 1,000 feet from a Mexican restaurant, I'm not a threat to that business with my coffee truck."
Food truck owners are hoping the council will reduce the radius from 1,000 to about 200 feet, which they said is more reasonable.
And food truck owners said the resistance to food trucks is based on fear, not the reality of the situation, which is that they're part of an exploding business that will be a major economic engine that could detour the city if leaders put up roadblocks.
Franke Mapes, a food truck owner who lives in Cranston, said he worked for years managing restaurants in Providence and he always told his employees that they wouldn't be there without all the other restaurants on the street.
"If there weren't a lot of choices, people wouldn't come to Thayer Street," he said. "We just want our fair share. I'd love to operate in the community I live in and the 1,000 foot rule is prohibitive."
The focal point of the confrontation could be located at Lang's Bowlarama on Niantic Avenue.
The owner there invited food truck vendors to come for a Wednesday night event every week. A total of 18 vendors have signed on in the hopes of making the parking lot in front of Lang's a hopping place throughout the summer.
But the ordinance would prevent that from happening, even if the owner of Lang's — who sells food himself — is inviting the food trucks to his property.
That's something that Councilman Mario Aceto said shouldn't be blocked.
"I don't see anything wrong with that," Aceto said. "If there's enough space and the owner invites you, I don't see the badness in that."
Councilman John E. Lanni Jr. said he understands all sides and suggested that food trucks find places in the city that don't already have a lot of restaurants that would potentially lose business. One such place would be at Hope Highlands.
What council members said they don't want happening is what florists have dealt with on holidays like Easter and Mother's day, where hawkers were selling $2 roses at the corner of Park and Reservoir Avenues in spitting distance of numerous flower shops.
Council members got a lot of calls about the hawkers and the food truck issue has gotten their phones ringing too.
Stephen Boyle, director of the Cranston Chamber of Commerce, said he's spoken to a lot of restaurant owners and said it's important to support taxpaying business in the city.
"We're in favor of this, he said. "We've got to support local businesses - the bricks and mortars that pay taxes in our city."
Food trucks must pay the city $250 to operate as an itinerant vendor plus $100 because their trucks qualify as a structure.
But there's more than just taxes in the revenue picture, said food truck owner Val Khislavsky.
"The growth of the industry in the past few years is indicative that food trucks are on to something — it's based on demand," Khislavksy said. "It would be a mistake to not recognize that and capitalize that. I think a lot of opposition is based on fear and an old way of doing things."
Councilwoman Sarah Kales Lee said she thinks there should be some kind of exception for special events or things like the Wednesday nights for food trucks planned at Lang's Bowlarama.
"It seems like it would be a nice event," she said, echoing statements from food truck owners who insist that they'd bring more people into the city and more attention to Cranston. The end result of that is more business for everyone.
But not everyone is convinced.
"If you put a taco truck next to Mesa Cafe, Ishmael is not going to be too thrilled about it," Boyle said.