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January 28, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Close down bathrooms, not food trucks

Competition is healthy, so if city council wants to level the playing field, it should find other ways


Steve Marcus

Guests line up outside the Nom Nom food truck during the Vegas Uncork’d “Follow That Truck” food festival at the Bellagio on Thursday, May 20, 2012. Celebrity chefs added to the gourmet fare from more than a dozen food trucks for the festival outside under the lights at Bellagio’s Hidden Drive.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

An attempt by brick-and-mortar restaurants to stifle competition from mobile food trucks stalled at the Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday, though only thanks to the council’s fecklessness.

As I’ve written before, this naked power grab should be killed outright, but food truck defenders can be happy, at least for now, that the issue was tabled.

Some restaurant owners and their allies in government wanted to force food trucks to stay a quarter of a mile from a stand-alone restaurant, which would have effectively barred the food trucks from downtown, unless a property owner invited the truck to vend on his lot.

That obscene distance requirement, which would be far greater than other cities that regulate food trucks, was whittled down to talk of 300 feet and 150 feet. The council was divided, and neither side could muster the votes to enact any policy at all in a scene that would have made legendary vote counter Lyndon Johnson laugh or weep.

First, though, we heard the usual unconvincing arguments as to why we should hurt the food truck business to “protect” restaurants.

It was taken as a given by a majority on the council that a food truck shouldn’t be allowed to park in front of a restaurant. Although I acknowledge that food trucks must park legally and comply with relevant health and safety codes, I have no idea why it’s supposed to be so distasteful that one business would compete against another.

Councilman Ricki Barlow likened the food trucks outside restaurants to someone selling shoes out of his car trunk outside a shoe store or a “liquor truck” competing with a bar or liquor store. It’s revealing in how Barlow views the food trucks, as basically black marketeers. (Though I applaud his creative thinking on a “liquor truck,” I’m pretty sure they’re not legal, unlike food trucks.)

Here’s a more relevant analogy for Barlow: Should we ban an entrepreneur from opening a Chinese restaurant next to another Chinese restaurant because the competition is somehow “unfair”? Should we allow just one Pho joint in our thriving Chinatown? Of course not.

Chinatown — and thriving restaurant districts just like it — is a cluster that attracts more customers together than if all the restaurants were spread out around the city.

In the same way, the restaurants and food trucks will bring more people downtown than if we just have one mediocre pizza joint on Fremont East. Competition? Yes, but this is a good thing, as the mix of food choices will bring more customers.

We were also told repeatedly that owners have invested so much more money in their restaurants and thus face a competitive disadvantage with food trucks.

This implies that opening a food truck is somehow not a major investment, requiring a pickup truck and a Costco card.

Not so. Tom Dennis, who got laid off from an armored car company, says he’s put $60,000 into his food truck business, The Redneck Kitchen. He and his four employees work lunch, cooking at local call centers and other office locations, and then do dinner and a late night bar shift. He’s paying his bills but by no means getting rich, he says.

Lisa Popovsky makes Roamin’ Dough, homemade pastries that are like Hot Pockets. (“A pie in every pocket!”) She was director of a local nonprofit that did child abuse prevention until it went under. She’s spent $50,000 on her business.

Have brick-and-mortar restaurants spent more? Yes. But you know what they get in exchange for their investment? Air conditioning, tables and chairs, real flatware and a bathroom — all things that customers might want and that serve as a competitive advantage over food trucks.

Unfair! To level the playing field with food trucks, I think we should force the brick-and-mortar restaurants to close their bathrooms.

Yes, that’s a fine idea, and I hope the council will take it up soon.

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  1. In a permanent restaurant, the proprietors must have trash services, perhaps they should have their customers throw their trash outside like food truck operations allow their customers to do, or they could rely on PUBLIC trash cans supplied by other businesses in the area paying their property taxes.

    So to level the playing field, in addition to closing the restrooms, landlords of restaurants should be exempt from property taxes AND having trash cans just like food trucks are now.

    What the city is missing out on is a revenue source. They should be charging the food trucks rent or licenses based on their ability to be near permanent restaurants. To park close, pay the city more. Park far away, pay the city less. This is what happens when you don't have people with business experience running your local government.

  2. What a stupid article with a lack of common sense! Here is a solution, if a food truck is going to be allowed to park in front of and compete with a like product restaurant, make the food truck vendor annual license an amount commensurate with the total RENT, TAXES, MAINTENANCE, INSURANCE, REPAIRS, OSHA EXPENSES, WINDOW CLEANING COSTS, UTILITY COSTS, EXPENSE ON CREDIT TRANSACTIONS, etc etc of the brick and mortar vendor!

    Hows that for a level playing field?

    And while I understand your examples of the two entrepreneurs with their sizable food truck business investments, that is not the rule of thumb. Most food truck operations are exactly what you say is not the case, a rusty pickup truck or former postal van with a Costco card (if you're lucky), or, a simple hot good, sausage or pizza trailer! And, how often do most food trucks get inspected?

    I do not and never have owned a restaurant; I do not and never have owned a food truck or stand. I have no interest in eliminating food trucks. I do have a problem with dumb articles and a lack of common sense!

  3. Mr. Trujillo,

    I would not be talking about "dumb articles" when it appears you know little to nothing about the costs, rules, laws and inspections of food trucks in the City of Las Vegas.

    They are inspected more then the brick and mortar food service in this city. Besides their normal inspections they are inspected each and every time they set up at a special event. (First Friday & others). They also pay for those inspections.

    You can't use common sense when you don't know the facts of what you are talking about, you just proved that.

  4. A basic washroom costs $40k to build, and is required by code. End of story.

  5. A good businessperson provides a product or service that people want. People want gourmet street food.

    The differences in overhead cost between a food truck and a restaurant are irrelevant.

    If a restaurant can't survive because there is a food truck at the end of the block, it was only a matter of time before they went under because of something else. Maybe the restaurants should focus on offering a better product and a better value instead of trying to legislate their competition out of business.

    Funny how people love the free market except for when they don't.

  6. Make the mandates for the trucks and restaurants the same and let them fight it out. If one is required to provide waste disposal and restrooms, mandate the exact same for both. That will bring an end in short order.

    And make sure employment and tax laws are enforced equally for both.

  7. I stand corrected vegaslee, Vegas is the only place on the planet where it costs as much as a brick and mortar establishment to run a hot dog stand, gourmet or not!

  8. The brick and mortar restaurants are not able to handle the business that waits for them. Long lines, indoor hassles, shoulder to shoulder shuffles, then wait at a table to pay $15 plus tip for the minimum chew. It's a lot like eating in a chicken coup with table cloths.

    The brick and mortar places don't have light, in and out hunger options and are designed more to soak their customers than provide a competitive product. The roach coach is evolution's answer to the New York pretzel cart vendor and it isn't going away.