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.”
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.