Emily Opilo has a great piece out on the growing interest in mobile food vendor businesses in Allentown. This is an issue I’ve been excited about for a while because Allentown’s large population of Latino newcomers surely have a lot of excellent family recipes to share, and the overhead cost of starting a mobile food business is very low:
Council President Julio Guridy said he has heard from several city residents interested in street vending opportunities around the arena. While some people might not have the money to open a restaurant downtown, street vending could offer entrepreneurs a chance to get in at the ground floor, he said.
It could also be a good opportunity for minority-owned businesses, he said.
“In many countries like the Dominican Republic, people in Puerto Rico, there are carts everywhere,” Guridy said. “They do it after hours and make really good money.”
Brown said she sees more opportunity for her vending business once the arena opens its doors, even if she is competing with others. Right now her food cart offers basic vendor fare such as burgers, hot dogs, chips and things that appeal to her clientele, but the arena-goers will allow her to experiment with different products.
Brown, who is a vegetarian, actually prefers healthier food. She has served up fish and turkey dishes while vending at festivals in Philadelphia, and it has been well-received. Not everyone eats junk, she said.
Regardless of what her fellow vendors serve up, food carts offer a chance to share in the economic boost that the arena is expected to bring, Brown said.
“People are trying to make a way for themselves in this economy,” she said. “They should have that right and that opportunity to do that, to benefit from what’s going to happen here in Allentown. I think it’s cool.”
Cities often add on a lot of regulatory costs, some of which are necessary and related to health and safety, and some of which are protectionist junk designed to reduce competition between mobile vendors and existing brick and mortar restaurants.
It looks like Allentown’s new mobile vendor ordinance got rid of some of the latter type. They no longer have the ridiculous requirement that mobile vendors selling similar foods to existing restaurants have to set up outside a 2 block radius from the competing business – a rule that would effectively ban all mobile vendors from the downtown area after a while.
But while it’s relatively free of anti-competitive regulations, there definitely are still some dumb rules in here:
- Vendors can’t set up before 9:00 am, and have to close down a half hour after sunset. That seems designed to reduce competition during the breakfast and dinner hours, and closes off the possibility of food trucks opening at night to serve bar-goers – usually a very lucrative time for mobile vendors.
- They have to get permission from adjacent property owners to use the sidewalk, since property owners are responsible for maintaining the sidewalk (Why are they responsible for maintaining the sidewalk?)
- Vendors aren’t allowed to sell food “within a City park; on the streets adjacent to or bordering a City park which is designated by the Mayor and the Director of Community Development.” Why not? Allentown’s got an amazing park system, and people would probably like to be able to buy food on the edge of the parks and bring it inside for a picnic.
- Food trucks can’t set up in a “publicly-owned parking lot or metered or controlled parking space.” Why not let people rent out spaces by the day?
- Vendors also have to stay in a fixed spot, rather than being able to move to where the customers are. That’s a key advantage of having a mobile business, and there’s no good reason they shouldn’t be allowed to take advantage of wheel and motor technology to reach customers at different places during different times of the day. Many vendors in other cities use Twitter to let customers know where they’ll be.
This isn’t nearly as bad as some cities’ mobile food ordinances- Bethlehem might be the worst offender I’ve seen – but there’s no reason not to strive for the ideal. The more of these problems that get corrected, the more Allentown residents will be able to profit from any downtown population growth resulting from recent developments in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone.