Let ten thousand Seattle food carts bloom: City proposes street food reform

Seattle’s pride in being a vibrant urban metropolis is tainted by the fact that our street food scene is limited to near-rogue efforts threatened by aggressive health department enforcement. Due to a number of strict regulations imposed in the 1980′s, Seattle’s street food has been reduced to less than 10 trucks and a battalion of hot dog vendors. But in the last year, due to consistent pressure from citizens and media outlets, the City of Seattle has finally decided to reform it’s anachronistic street food system in order to spur economic vitality and pedestrian-friendly streets.

At December’s Capitol Hill Community Council meeting, Gary Johnson from Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, filled us in on some of the specific reforms that City Hall hopes to implement in the coming year.


While it won’t make the streets a free-for-all to any entrepreneur with ambitions, it will be a huge step forward in bringing us more in line with our annoyingly cool sister to the South.

Here are the main changes being proposed:

  • Eliminate required 200-foot park setback. This would be dropped as vending has been shown to activate and improve park safety. This is also means that the failed Wandering Wieners as sole vendor in Cal Anderson park was likely the last of its kind.
  • Set “clear path of travel” standards for carts on sidewalks. Replace maximum cart dimensions with standards to ensure clear sidewalks for persons with disabilities and easy access to area business.
  • Create street use permit for mobile trucks. Currently only trucks serving construction sites are regulated [outside of private property]. This would expand the definition [of food carts] to allow SDOT to issue street use permits where mobile tucks propose to operate from the right-of-way, similar to sidewalk cafe or other street use permits.
  • Set standards for design, litter pickup, and hours of operation. Allow SDOT to set guidelines for cart dimensions and design, and standards for trash clean up, and hours of operation consistent with area businesses.
  • Setback from restaurants. Require food vendors to be 50′ from adjacent food service, unless with written permission from the business.
  • Improve notice requirements for the public and area businesses. Require public notices of pending applications for mobile food vendors in the right-of-way and require food vending applicant to notify all adjacent businesses in person.
  • Mobile vending from the street. Allow SDOT to designate public places (such as Occidental or Westlake Parks, or on-street locations) for mobile vending
  • Although some of these things don’t sound particularly food cart friendly, I think the most important things are that SDOT could designate specific food vending areas, where any mobile food vendor, push cart of truck, could apply for use. This is very similar to the street food squares in Portland. Also freeing up the cart dimensions would allow vendors to have push carts that meet their food handling needs, instead of a standard size that really only works for a few items (namely hot dogs).

    During his presentation, Johnson consistently referred to Portland and their success with food vending. He specifically mentioned an interesting micro-enterprise program in PDX that he hopes to introduce up here. The program, run by Hacienda, helps immigrant families start mobile food vending services as a way to increase economic stability (more on that at their website).

    Johnson wasn’t sure on the timeline for changes to actually get implemented but said they are working to have things finalized in the next few months. If you have any questions or comments about food vending reform, send them to Marshall Foster, Office of Policy and Management, or Gary Johnson, Department of Planning and Development.

    29 thoughts on “Let ten thousand Seattle food carts bloom: City proposes street food reform

    1. Whenever I go to Portland there is an incredibly rich variety of food carts with tasty inexpensive food. They line the perimeters of several downtown parking lots and generate foot traffic for other nearby businesses. As the article mentions, many are owned by migrant families running their own business, but the benefit to others is the opportunity to experience new cuisines. Some of them have even won national awards for their food. It would be wonderful if Seattle could create a similar scene.

    2. Seattle is one of the few cities I have lived in where street food is MIA. Hopefully they make the permitting process easy enough to go through and cheap enough to make business sense.

    3. Who do you sue if you get sick? Any insurance required?

      It is a little bit racist to assume that those who might vend on the street, which is a large investment, are an under class of immigrants … code for people of color.

      For what you get, street stuff is really expensive in many cases, and not nourishing real food …hot dogs. You pay for fast service, no tip, and eat and go … like airport food stalls.

      Apparently you can now vend wrapped items, fruits and wrapped cookies, bottled fruit and other high quality drinks – but – few do. Why not? If there is a waiting market, and money to be made.

      This is hard work and long hours and spotty traffic. Good luck to those who think changing the rules will create some adorned food carts to help decorate the so called street scapes.

      Pedestrian issues clearly have to be more closely examined. Especially for the disabled. Already there are moments at places where bars extend on the sidewalk – moments when you have to wait to get around on the smaller sized walkway … crowded times … it is a real problem. God forbid you are in a wheel chair or motor cart.

      Interesting stuff – the city pays for this staff time at the same time the are taking money from vital services. Is this the highest priority for city dollars at this time? The city hall mantra is that there is not more fat in the city budget … well I guess that idea of lean staffing is in the propaganda cart … careening downhill. Wonder how much we spend, the city, to create more flower baskets?

    4. Hey Mike,
      Is this the point where I insult you and tell you to move cause this is the city and that’s just what you have to expect here?

    5. In the spirit of Christmas humor, I called you a grinch … never suggested you move. Getting things confused, some other person.

      What you post is all up to you, but, it needs to stay on issues and not personal attack. This blog is not about that … tons of blogs do nothing else … on the other hand, after you live her a decade or so you will get the gist of the Seattle style.

      I was born here, love the place. But our culture does have quirks, including being almost 100 per cent gay friendly. Might be a fun thread – Seattle quirks that make us unique in the minds of posters …I am game.

      Best for the Holidays,

      Mike

    6. And even further south to LA… Saw this story on CBS Sunday Morning in November. All sorts of cuisine – from hot dogs to Korean-Mexican fusion to cupcakes – sold from mobile food trucks all around LA.

      PS: Sunday Morning is an awesome show if you are ever up that early (7:30-9am) or have room on the DVR.

    7. My post was meant in fun and in response to all the attention I got from you and others. Just trying to make sure I’m acting like a true Seattleite. ;)

    8. Scovile

      No, still a long way to go.

      I suggest it is a ten year course … one day at a time. And even then, you may not be told the secret handshake.

    9. Can we please get a Sawasdee Thai Cart outlet? It is the best damn food cart in Portland, and it rivals any thai here in Seattle. On top of that, you only have to go once and she remembers your order.

      *love*

    10. I like a good cheap meal as much as anyone. But those carts cannot be hygienic. The same hands that set up the cart are the hands that, bereft of a sink with running water to clean them, then assemble your food. Let Portland have something that we don’t. Would that be okay?

    11. You have echoed a concern of mine – the few times I have felt sick form eating have both been from street prepared food. I am fussy about clean and food, and just can’t see that high standards will be maintained or enforced.

      In the original article, there was concern that our current health dept. standards are too strict. What is that all about? We have a world class highly regarded health dept., renowned around the nation, and in public people say oh, they are too strict. Kinda of working backwards in many ways it seems to me.

      And in the event of a massive problem the City would be sued for not having strict standards. Who would the parents of a dead kid sue, a taco truck owner?? No the city.

      Having read the Portland stuff – their scene serving food places, are really NO seating small cafe kitchens. NOT at all mobile. NOT carts. NOT pushed anywhere.

      Lot more work to do here it seems.

    12. Food carts have sinks. They undergo food inspections just like restaurants, and if they fail inspections (as Skillet has numerous times) the city shuts them down. You can read all the reports on-line if you want. I assume you also read the reports on every restaurant that you visit.

    13. My reaction to possible problems is based on the reporting by Josh – he posted this – that relaxing the current stringent rules is in the works to encourage MORE so called “street vending”.

      Doesn’t sound like a good idea at all to relax any rules. Why would you go backward in protecting public health. As you mention, something called Skillet has been closed many times. Thank goodness for strong standards and very strong enforcement power. It works. After repeated offenses, why don’t they loose their permit?

      I have looked at kitchens a few times, and walked out a few times too. Very common, ask a chef. Also I send it back if it is stale or seems off taste, etc. Recently that has not been a problem on C. Hill where I eat out most – but – have several true stories about spoiled food on the plate. Some people are shocked that you say this is not fit to eat and send it back and on and on. (Bad oysters and shrimp are the worst)

      Totally safe food anywhere it is offered to the public? A rigid fixed and declared set of rules, strongly enforced. Why should there be less?

      Mike – who won’t eat spoiled food, and will send it back, supporting strong and enforced standards to protect the public health.

    14. Hardly overly focused – just not in a hurry to change good safety laws – which changes are most likely not needed to encourage more vending.

      Food focused, isn’t the thread on that topic? And most of us do eat two or three times a day in some combination of fare, place and timing.

      Pavlovian, you have no focus on food? That would be unusual … urban dwellers even in small city Seattle spend lots of time on food issues, on and on.

      Cheers, Mike

    15. Why would anyone spend $300,000 or more to build a restaurant if a $20,000 street cart can come, park across the street, and skim off the profits?

      You don’t need to take all the restaurant’s business. Just take 20% of lunch and dinner and it’s out of business.

    16. Recently there was a TV news article about differnt kinds of food vendors and how each type of vendor rated when it came to bacteria in their hot dog pots. Vending carts were by far more contaminated than any other type of vendor (stands, cafes, delis, etc.) – 10 to fifteen times more bacteria in that “mystery liquid” they keep their ‘dogs in. I used to go to carts but now the thought nausiates me…

    17. Yay! Can’t wait.

      And for those concerned about hygiene, don’t eat at the carts… doesn’t have to be ruined for the rest of us.

    18. Yeah sure – then it is your kid, niece, little neighbor girl, that dies of e coli bacteria, you sound inane …. and of course your belly is steel.

    19. Can you provide the information on the regulations/proposed changes? Would be nice to see what the requirements are so we can make informed consumer choices!

    20. It’s important to remember that SDOT and DPD help craft regulations for the street use, zoning, etc. They don’t have anything to do with food regulations, and that’s one of the important aspects here. The Seattle/King County food code is key. Basically, in most cases, if you want to sell more than hot dogs, coffee, or popcorn you need 3 sinks for washing, sterilizing, etc.

      And in actuality, there is nothing stopping Seattle from having what we see down in Portland with food trucks collected in a parking lot. They are on private property so you don;t have the same issues as you do with a vendor cart using the sidewalk.

    21. Yes and no. health Dpt. regs still rule when it comes to food service to the public. Period.

      But, parked vehicles on private property who are neither on the sidewalk nor on the street at curb side are going to have less city stuff to deal with.

      Zoning might preempt parking on just any lot. Zoning must allow I presume … simple does not exist in these matters.

      Let’s face it – only the church potluck is just the so easy thing when it comes to food. (and the rec. hall kitchen at my last potluck would put any eatery to shame – modern, to the max – all code, etc. )

    22. Mike with Curls,
      During the presentation last month, the gentleman from DPD repeatedly stated that absolutely no health department regulations would be changed. There are strict placement laws that basically ban street food (w/the exception of private property) in Downtown Seattle or near parks–these are the regulations that DPD is interested in altering. The health department has strict rules for a reason and the City has no interest in encouraging small vendors to jeopardize public safety.

      Concerns over existing health regulations aside, the new DPD street food initiative is merely one component of the City’s larger plan to activate the local streetscapes where development has stalled and neighborhood business districts (eg Broadway, Pioneer Square) are losing pedestrian traffic–other strategies include temporary uses of space including events, markets and sidewalk cafes. We have a wonderful series of farmers markets that have become a great community resource–and judging by the popularity of the 2009 Interbay Chowdown in October, (carts were turning away long lines of hungry patrons) there is a high demand for more mobile food options around town.

      With respect to competition, as Josh stated in his article, all licenses within a close proximity (50 feet) to existing food establishments will need a letter of consent from the business owner in order to apply for a permit to operate. Secondly, all of the licenses that that would be considered would be temporary and will have a regular review schedule (so they can be revoked at a later date if circumstances/community sentiments change).

      Activating the streetscape is a large component of public safety–especially in the winter months when Seattle gets dark at 4:30. While we are only talking about a handfull of permits to begin with, this is an exciting experiment with little in the way of a downside. If the City wants to spend the money for a couple of people at DPD to look into ways of activating our streetscape that don’t require millions of public dollars to alter the built environment and allow local entrepreneurs to fill a void–I say it’s money well spent.

    23. The current health department code requires all street vendors to have a letter from the adjacent property owner allowing them restroom access. Similarly the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) requires a letter from the adjacent property owner allowing the vendor to vend his products outside their property.

      My experience over the last month has shown that property owners are unwilling to give written permission. I dont know what the exact reason is and I can only speculate. This effectively means that its near impossible to get clearance from the health department and SDOT for any street vending operation. I find this utterly ridiculous and wonder why they get peoples hopes up when they make it so hard to get a license.

      I hope the new mayor will take note of this catch-22 situation and make alterations to the current city regulations so that requirements are actually doable.

    24. “It is a little bit racist to assume that those who might vend on the street, which is a large investment, are an under class of immigrants … code for people of color.”

      —does that sound offensive to anyone else?

      Rules on food prep/handling is not what would become more lax. Brick and mortar restaurants and food carts/trucks have the same guidlines when it comes to refridgeration, food prep/handling/cooking/heating, sanitation, etc. None of these rules can/will change in the event that the mobile food industry is expanded. If a cart does not abide health department rules, they have so long to reform and comply; just like any other food establishment. Yes, they already require insurance and are held responsible for the products they serve!

      By changing permit fees, zoning and size regulations, etc, more vendors will have the opportunity to start/expand their business. Most carts will still use a comissary kitchen for food prep, which has to be approved by the health department as well. Each time a business has to approve a kitchen, whether it is used by other business or not, there is a permit fee. In my county it is a one time fee of $600 and a yearly fee of $300. This does not include business licensing or sales permits from the state/city. So those of you complaining about the waste of time/money our state government is wasting, think about this along with revenue taxes.

      Regarding local restaurant competition, if a restaurant can’t stand on its own then chances are, it won’t. Nobody stops one restaurant from opening up next to another. If that were the case, all we woud have on each bloc would be a Mcdonalds or a Subway. Having lived in Portland, I can say that the food cart movement just showcases another side of the the food industry. It gets more people interested in a variety of cuisines, encourages people to expand there pallets and even venture into other local restaurants. The big trend right now: mobile gourmet food. Most of these vendors use local products. How can that be bad for our local economy? In most cases, the food is great and affordable. Those of you who don’t want to try it, guess what, all you have to do is walk on by (and yes, you will be able to do that safely and comforably thanks to food cart paking/zoning guidelines!)

    25. RE: Fabulous!

      Yeah sure – then it is your kid, niece, little neighbor girl, that dies of e coli bacteria, you sound inane …. and of course your belly is steel.

      Comment by Mike with curls

      mike with curls- if you are so afraid of food carts, you probably shouldn’t eat in any kitchen other than your own. All food establishments have to follow the same guidelines for food safety!