Food truck fight heats up in Houston

Miya Shay Image
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Food truck operators want to serve the downtown lunch crowd

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The last food fight you had may have been in your middle school cafeteria, but here in Houston, a much more serious fight is about to get underway. On one side, the 800 food trucks that roam the city, which includes a growing number of chef-driven foodie favorites. On the other, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, the group that represents thousands of restaurants in Houston.

The debate is whether propane-based food trucks should be allowed to operate in the downtown business district (CBD) and the Medical Center.

Take for example, the Pho-Jita truck. On this Wednesday, it was parked along Post Oak in the heart of the Galleria. The truck dished out food to eager office workers. It uses propane to cook, and that's perfectly legal in the Galleria area.

"As of now the city doesn't permit us to be within the confines of downtown and that's a pretty big area, considering Houston is such a big area," says John Tapia, in between taking lunch time orders.

Tapia and other operators of trucks would love to serve the 250,000 office workers who flood downtown every day. Long time city regulations prevent propane-based mobile food units (MFU) from operating in the CBD and the Medical Center. Mayor Annise Parker tried to update the regulations a few years ago, but lost that battle. She says outdated regulations unfairly stifle competition, and wants to tackle revamping city rules again.

"Competition is competition, and we're not in the business of protecting existing businesses, we're about allowing competition to take place," said Parker

The mayor wants to eliminate the propane ban, and make several other adjustments that would allow the MFUs to operate downtown. That includes getting rid of the rule that benches or other seating must be at least 100 feet from a truck. However, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association is against any loosening of current regulations. The association points out that most brick and mortar restaurants had to make significant investments into their establishments and pay a variety of taxes and fees. They view the loosening of regulations as unfair competition.

"I had to build grease traps, build parking, file for a liquor license," says GHRA President Reginald Martin, also a restaurant owner. "This is a disadvantage to me. Because there are a lot of costs we can't recoup overnight."

Food truck supporters and opponents turned out in full force at a City Council Committee hearing on the issue. Not all the proposed changes will require City Council approval. Some can be done administratively by Parker.

It's clear both sides will fight for their rights. For now, food trucks can operate anywhere else in the city, except Downtown and the Medical Center.