City planners want to pilot Seattle street food plan on Broadway

As famed Seattle street food vendor Skillet nears an official announcement on a permanent Capitol Hill home (we have rumor on where, here), CHS has learned that there might be a street food plan for Broadway that will both make the Hill an even hotter foodie destination and give brick and mortar restaurants some added competition.

The City of Seattle Department of Planning & Development is putting together a plan to create a pilot street food program headquartered on Broadway between John and Denny across from the light rail construction area. The area, home to Seattle’s founding father of cheap eats, Dick’s Drive-in, is thought to be the perfect laboratory for a program to test the impact of a designated area for low-overhead, high flavor street vendors. It’s a challenged area as construction has created a multi-year empty void in the middle of the city’s most vibrant neighborhood.

“Why isn’t there much of a street food scene in Seattle? It’s conspicuous in its absence,” said Gary Johnson, coordinator for the DPD and leading the effort on the plan. “It’s all part of a smart growth strategy to create urban neighborhoods where companies want to be and people want to live.”


Skillet in Capitol Hill
Originally uploaded by joeytrimmer

That DPD is drafting legislation now that could create a culture of restaurants on wheels in Seattle. They are looking to start a pilot launch program on Broadway. Using the successful Portland model as guide, the City believes that allowing street vendors to act as restaurants on wheels will attract increased foot traffic and add more vibrancy to the area. They also argue that it is a good entry point for entrepreneurs and first time business owners, with the potential to positively affect a diverse number of people and increase the economic vitality of the neighborhood.

But an established low-cost restaurant in the area like Dick’s might not see the promise in what is essentially a pilot program in fostering competition for $1.20 hamburgers. Dick’s declined to go on the record with CHS at this time. We’ll follow up with other restaurants in the area soon.

DPD’s Johnson lays out three scenarios for a mobile vending plan in Seattle. One is the taco truck model, where a vendor moves around the city and sets up shop in different parking lots. Another model is the carts set up on sidewalks, like the beloved hot dog stand outside of the Comet. The third is a “vendor in a box” concept – neither bus nor wheeled cart, but a stand set up on private or public property. A good example of this is the Victoria, BC restaurant Red Fish Blue Fish that set up shop in a steel shipping container parked on a sidewalk by a busy pier.

While all of that seems to fit well within the Broadway culture, it could also deeply affect the surrounding brick and mortar restaurants that will have to compete.

“The Chamber is concerned about the bottom line for our members,” said Michael Wells, interim executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. “There are some restaurants that feel like it would rub against their profits.”

Wells said that the Chamber is not yet ready to take an official stand on the proposal. But he said the idea of increased foot traffic, especially around the light rail construction area, is highly appealing.

“We are interested in exploring activation and having that not be a dead space during construction,” said Wells. “It’s important to our mission and the neighborhood.”

Johnson is scheduled to attend the next Chamber meeting to present the idea to the board members, Wells said. The City will be campaigning to many other community organizations and businesses. Then, the plan will be taken to the City Council for approval. Johnson said their goal is to have the pilot program up and running by this summer.  

City Councilmember Sally Clark supports the initiative and thinks it could increase everyone’s profits in the long run.

“Generally, I don’t think street vendors take business from brick-and-mortar restaurants, rather I think they draw more people to an area,” said Clark. “All business can benefit by that interest.”

Jerry Traunfeld, chef and owner of Poppy on north Broadway and with a menu on the other end of the price spectrum from street food, is excited about the prospect.

“Although not all of Broadway’s restaurant owners agree with me, I love the idea. I don’t want carts on every corner, but I like the idea of allowing food trucks to park near the sound transit construction area,” he said. “I think anything to bring people and activity to the area can only benefit local restaurants. The proliferation of quality, innovative street food is a major trend in American cuisine right now, and it’s shortsighted not to encourage it on Capitol Hill.”

The laws surrounding street food vendor restrictions date back to the 1980s, when Seattle first started limiting food licenses.

“Oddly, right now, according to city rules, you can sell only hot dogs, popcorn or espresso on a city sidewalk,” said Clark. “That seems a little limited, so I’d like to see us open the range up a bit. That involves a change to our street use rules.  At the same time we should make sure we have in place standards for maintaining a clear path way.”

DPD is working with Seattle Public Health to reevaluate those codes and establish a new set of boundaries for a variety of food types. They are also exploring ways for entrepreneurs to submit business proposals to the Health Department, to make their food concept work within state regulations.

To address the issue of business competition, vendors would not be able to set up shop within 50 feet of a brick and mortar restaurant. In its final stages, that legislation could change to 100 feet, according to Johnson. Also, food carts will only be permitted where there is sufficient sidewalk space and easy access for the disabled.

The Department of Planning and Development will also work with SDOT to create a street use permit for mobile carts, allowing them to operate from the right-of-way in designated spaces. SDOT will also determine a process for litter pickup, dimensions, design and hours of operation. Johnson said they are also trying to indentify parking zones where food vendors could sell during certain days or hours.

The result, city planners hope, is a environment that spurs an increasingly creative and entrepreneurial food culture in Seattle. And, if the plan works out, Capitol Hill and Broadway will be at the heart belly of it.

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17 thoughts on “City planners want to pilot Seattle street food plan on Broadway

  1. We really could use more grab-and-go food up here. It would be awesome to have Skillets up here, and maybe a taco truck on the North end too. ;-)

  2. Somebody posted the idea earlier of using the People’s Parking lot between Pike/Pine for street food vendors to setup. Put some picnic tables in the middle and make a haven for them.

    As long as we get a poutine fry cart – I’m happy!

  3. for what it’s worth, the owner is open to an arrangement. marination mobile was going to set up there last summer but when the city reworked the sidewalks, they closed the curb cuts, so there was no way to drive on to the lot. seems like an easy fix to make though if the city and vendors are all interested.

  4. I am waiting on approval from L&I for our mobile food van and have been wanting a spot on Capitol Hill this whole time I haven’t been able to find a spot that could be approved by the state. I know there are street food vendors that just show up to places on capitol hill but regulations say that we are not supposed to park on public property. I see people doing in it Bell Town and on the hill all the time. I am from Portland and have many very successful friends with carts and would love to become a part of the movement here that makes the opportunity like this easier and more available.

  5. this is a great idea to spice up Broadway, though I’d again say that it seems like a great fit for that dead lot on Pine until development sets in.

    still, for all of the bellyaching about the “nonexistent” street food scene in Seattle, there sure seem to be a lot of beloved food carts, mobile diners, hot dog stands, ice cream wagons, pizza parlors, and taco trucks.

  6. AMEN to the taco truck idea. It boggles my mind why this town doesnt have cheap eats. The Cap Hill Area is in dire need of cheap food. This area has people up and about at all hours. Of course the first person to honestly bring some decent bbq to this town will surely make a mint.
    Cheap eat ideas: Taco truck plz, bbq, deli sandwiches and whatever else you can toss out there. Don’t think about it, Don’t study it in with overpaid planning commission, just DO IT for once. People need choices

  7. Someone needs to remind the Chamber of Commerce that food carts are businesses too. Seems backwards to me that the chamber would be against something that would bring more businesses to the neighborhood.

  8. I’m guessing if they don’t pay their dues, they’re not important to the Chamber.

    I can’t wait for this to get better, we need a damn Grilled Cheese truck here! Portland can’t have *all* the late night fun :p

  9. The Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce is in no way against the street food initiative. There are brick and mortar food business owners on Broadway who have some concerns and the City is, rightly, willing to listen to those concerns and have a discussion w/ those business owners.

    Noting nefarious in that.

  10. I state clearly in the article that we want to find ways to activate the street during the Sound Transit construction. Food vendors is one way to do that. That said – taking account of the anxiety of Broadway business about their bottom line is the responsible thing to do, for us and for the City. The City knows that which is why the invited us to the discussion.

    From day one the Chamber has been about the health and vitality in this neighborhood in all kinds of arenas, not just economic ones. The old school image of greedy business folk gloating over pots of money just doesn’t fit the reality of this organization or of Capitol Hill biz owners in general. It’s not accurate.

  11. Lauren, I’d be interested in talking to you about a follow up article on a recent street food truck trying to promote the scene (and it’s affiliated restaurant) with free street food. Feel free to email me or call for more info – thanks!

  12. Michael Wells says “The chamber is concerned about the bottom line for OUR members” EXACTLY!!! for YOUR MEMBERS and then he goes on to say “there are some restaurant’s that feel like it would rub against their profits.”

    It kinda seems self evident that a business operating in a free market would need to compete. Why the owners of restaurant’s having to compete is any way something the city council should even be considering is beyond me but apparently the lobbyists at the chamber of commerce aren’t concerned with free market competition rather they are ardent promoters of monopolization, influence and controlling markets and it seems the City has been right behind them.

    Seems like in a free market it would make sense if entrepreneurs could setup on the sidewalks they paid tax to lay and maintain and get a fair shot at a dollar and a dream though and it seems apparent that after the City created a system that effectively banned these types of business activities through intentional over regulation and taxation without representation the city is trying it’s hand at making money they don’t deserve to make.

    Here in Seattle entrepreneurs wishing to open cart’s for their shot at the american dream are subject to city owned monopolies that are influenced into existence by lobbyist’s who are clearly playing both sides of the fence.

  13. I MISS THE FOOD CARTS IN PORTLAND SOOOO BAD!!! THERE AMAZING!! GREAT FOOD, EXTREMELY CHEAP!! jUST MOVED HERE FROM PORTLAND 4 MONTHS AGO, AND NOTHING COMPARES TO OUR FOOD CART CUISINE!! LETS GET ON THE BALL SEATTLE!!! ITS BAD WHEN THREE FOOD CARTS IN PORTLAND (ALL INDIAN FOOD) TASTE BETTER THEN THE (20) THATS RIGHT 20 ACTUAL INDIAN RESTAURANTS IN SEATTLE!!!! NOT ONLY INDIAN CUISINE, THE FOOD CARTS HAVE AN AMAZING VARIETY!!! THIS TOWN HAS BEEN DRY OF GOOD QUICK AND ENJOYABLE FOOD!! RANGING FROM… OF COURSE INDIAN, THAI, CHINESE, LEBANESE, VIETNAMESE, BBQ, ECT…. LET ME KNOW IF IM WRONG, WOULD BE MUCH APPRICIATED. PORTLAND FOOD EXTREMEST… sorry i love my food..