City gets serious about street food: New plan could create zones on Capitol Hill by summer

A plan to jumpstart Seattle’s street food scene is moving forward with new legislation designed to boost local shopping district economies, create “festive, pedestrian-friendly streets” and give entrepreneurs an easier starting point for creating their own food and drink businesses, CHS learned.

We reported last summer that city planners had targeted Capitol Hill as one area to pilot a new streetfood program in the city.

According to Gary Johnson, the Department of Planning and Development coordinator leading the project, the new proposals are being prepared for the Seattle City Council to take up this spring. “We are preparing to transmit legislation to Council (within the next couple of weeks) so the initiative should gain higher visibility soon,” Johnson tells CHS.

The plan lays out three main benefits to the city — and Capitol Hill — of the new street food zones:

The City of Seattle would like to encourage more street food vending in our city, especially in the Center City neighborhoods. Affordable and culturally-diverse street food can improve public safety and street life, increase access to local food, and create new business opportunities.   

What are the benefits? 

· Economic vitality.  The experience of other cities shows that food vendors attract foot traffic to commercial districts—which means increased sales and a more vibrant retail business overall.[1]  By offering low-cost, culturally-diverse foods for people on the go, they typically complement— rather than compete— with sit-down restaurants and give people more reasons to frequent local shopping districts. 

· Festive, pedestrian-friendly streets. Food vendors bring positive activity to the street and add a festive, people-oriented feel that improves public safety.  In many cities, food vendors provide a window into many diverse cultures, introducing people to new foods and to the pleasures of spending time in the public space of the city. 

· An entry point to owning your own business.  Food vending can be an ideal first business. For a modest investment, it helps an entrepreneur develop a track record and build loyal clientele. For many immigrant and refugee communities, food vending offers a point of entry to the economy and a way to learn the food service industry.

The urge to streamline Seattle’s permitting process around street food has picked up steam with the proliferation of mobile food trucks and the continued growth of Seattle’s love/envy relationship with Portland, land of delicious food trailers. While few will object to having unique and affordable chow more readily available, there are legitimate concerns around infrastructure details like garbage, sidewalk and curb use and, yes, bathrooms.

We checked in with the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce to get their latest thoughts on the initiative but haven’t yet heard back. Last summer, Michael Wells, then the interim executive director of the Chamber, said, “The Chamber is concerned about the bottom line for our members. There are some restaurants that feel like it would rub against their profits.” We’ll update when we get a chance to talk with Wells now that things have progressed — and he’s no longer “interim.”

More of our questions and answers from DPD’s Johnson about the initiative, below.

What locations will participate in the program?
Johnson: Remember that the initiative affects both sidewalk carts and trucks.  I believe you are mostly interested in trucks, so I’ll focus on that aspect.  Our proposed legislation would empower SDOT to create curbside zones in which a food truck could park and vend to the sidewalk with a street use permit for that location and time.  Should Council support this proposal, we anticipate that SDOT will pilot several (10?) of these zones in commercial zones.  The focus will probably initially be on “Center City” neighborhoods around downtown, including Capitol Hill.  SDOT will observe a set of setbacks in siting a food vehicle zone, including a minimum of 50’ from any food service business, setbacks from bus zones, etc.  A notification process will alert neighbors that the zone is under consideration and will invite comment/input.  We have identified the long Sound Transit light rail station area along Broadway as having good potential as a location.  It is important to note that the Health Dept. requires that food vendors that are operating at a location for more than one hour must provide written permission for restroom access for employees (not customers) within 200’.  This requirement interjects a significant degree of uncertainty related to the viability of any potential food vehicle zone.

How will vendors be chosen?
Johnson: The legislation directs that SDOT will make available street use permits for any food vehicle zones.  If there are more than one applicant, a lottery will be conducted.  Our current proposal is that permits for four hour time blocks would be made available for any zone, in order to make a location available to multiple vendors, either during the day or on different days.  Benefits include providing broader access to vendors but also to provide neighborhoods with a wider variety of street food options.

We know there was some opposition to this from ‘brick and mortar’ restaurants. How have their concerns been met?
Johnson: I think it remains a mixed bag with some supportive and some opposed.  As mentioned, we are proposing a 50’ setback from any food service business.  An important aspect of the initiative is trying to strike the right balance between the legitimate needs and concerns of brick and mortars and the multiple benefits that can be provided by a street food.

What’s the probable timeline for implementation?
Johnson: I anticipate that we will transmit our proposed legislation within the next couple of weeks.  The City Council is likely to take a couple of months considering it.  I hope to have new regulations in place by late spring/early summer.

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

18 thoughts on “City gets serious about street food: New plan could create zones on Capitol Hill by summer

  1. It continues to baffle me that restaurants claim this development will hurt their businesses. That claim lacks common sense. In areas where there is street food, I have NEVER been on my way to a steak dinner and, upon passing a taco truck, changed my mind nor have I ever heard of anyone else doing it either. Frankly, Capitol Hill is sorely lacking in cheap, convenient food options. It isn’t a sit down restaurant that would lose my business, it would be QFC, and that just barely…

  2. Because Capitol Hill has so much available parking? Way to screw over other businesses by taking that away. Here’s another concern: Do they pay sales tax and who makes sure they’re collecting? I don’t see any cash registers on the hot dog carts. And CaptainChaos – not every brick-and-mortar restaurant is a “sit down”. That is direct competition for those of us running QSR’s and it’s not right. I have to give up available parking spaces so competition that doesn’t have to pay any rent can park there? Seriously? Do their customers get to come in and use my bathroom too?

  3. It continues to astound me the lack of common sense of Seattlites, it shouldn’t but it does.

    There are all kinds of businesses in Seattle that “don’t use a cash register” — quick better pay a government employee a fulltime wage to stand and hover over them so every sale can be dutifully recorded. Yes, Virginia, street carts do have to pay sales tax just like everybody else. Do some people try to scam the system? Of course, but they come in all shapes and sizes. Do street carts have to pay B&O taxes because they are . . . gasp! . . . a business? Yes. Do they have to get a business license just like everyone else? Yes.

    Regarding parking spaces, while that’s an issue, you have to remember that the parking spaces outside your business do not belong to you or your customers . . . most likely the car parked there all day belongs to an employee of your business or another neighboring business. I would be far more concerned about working with your employees to stop parking on the street – and denying those spaces to potential visitors to the neighborhood – than I would be about a food truck using them.

    And I imagine those food trucks will be paying rent to the city — there are no free parking on-street parking spaces for them to occupy. The city charges a fee when you hood the meter on a paid parking space, and at this point in time, most all the spaces on streets with a lot of foot traffic are paid spaces, then yes, Virginia, the street food trucks will (I imagine) be paying rent for the space, just like you.

    It’d be great is this blog followed up with the city on what kind of rates the city will be charging for rent for use of a parking space or use of a street corner.

    Finally, yes, these food carts/trucks will be competition, but so are the other restaurants in the retail spaces on your block. Can’t control who landlords rent to, at least with the city they are proposing a 50 foot distance from any current restaurant.

    Now just a imagine you are the owner of food truck, and you have been operating for a year or two and doing reasonably well, and then the landlord of the building you are parked in front of changes the use of their space from office to food service. Do you have to move and find another location? Or because you were there first do you get to stay in the spot and the restaurant business moving in just becomes competition for you. Bad restaurant business, unfair!

    Have a nice day!

  4. What business do you work in (or own) and let me see if I can figure out how I could bankrupt you by allowing competition to open 50 feet away that doesn’t have any of your overhead.

  5. I have had some crappy food from these operations. If you are not picky and in a hurry – go for it.

    Cheap – shop specials.(PURR, MONDAY 6.00 FOR A BEER AND THE BURGER – WHAT A DEAL)

    And the belly ache. Last time I was in Portand, last fall, are you kidding about quality, not so.

    And remember the city pays big bucks to there people to sit around and do this stuff … in a year of massive cut backs to all social services.

  6. So, in summary, you feel the government should use laws to limit competition to your business. The government should also make public parking property available for your business, because you don’t want to “give up” parking spots… that aren’t yours.

  7. condescending, it isn’t the government’s job to prevent competition, nor is it the government’s job to prevent companies from failing because of competition. Competition helps consumers — it gives us choice. The government should not limit choice, and that’s why restaurants are “allowed” to open across the street from one another.

  8. More food carts! Boo to people who drive to Capitol Hill, they’re pretty bad at it anyway. Take the bus or a cab! If your business has to rely on the availability of parking to get customers, then maybe it’s not very good in the first place.

  9. Elliott Bay Books, big store, moved to the Hill. Doing well. CREATED tons of parking around the new store. WHY?

    Cause it does indeed make a difference. I wonder what planet some of you live on, and wonder if you know what it feel like to live in a dead neighborhood with no money flowing and dead business space.

    Oh, ride a bile, Oh, fuck ’em if they can’t survive. Gimme me a break.

    As far as the food, if it is cheap people will eat anything. Cheap is the key word. Flavored noodles sell well and are cheap and make money for the vendors …noodle heaven it shall be. And Mexican soda …

  10. You’re off the mark. Trucks have to pay all sorts of fees, and often a “rent” as well. At the very least, they must pay a “rent” for usage of a real kitchen, and to park the truck somewhere during off-business hours. Think about it. It’s also a very risky and unstable way of doing business.

    As a business owner, you should know that all restaurants fall along a spectrum that serves various niches. At the top, you have high-end like El Gaucho or Daniel’s broiler, then upscale casual, then very casual sit-down places, and finally quick service places like yours (presumably). Food trucks and hot dog carts would occupy the very bottom rung. There’s no seating, not even an “interior” to get out of the rain and cold! In winter in Seattle, that’s a big concern.

    Sounds like you just don’t like ANY competition. What you’re complaining about would be just as true if a McDonald’s moved in across the street from you. It’s called capitalism. It’s not about government guaranteeing you a monopoly on your little street corner. It’s about satisfying customer demand. If people want more street food, then it’ll happen…

  11. In response to “condescending dipshit” — trucks and carts may not have the overhead, but they also don’t have all the advantages of brick-and-mortar restaurants. As a business, you choose what business model you are going to operate under. If you’re so jealous of food carts, why don’t you open one? You’ll probably find that after all the fees, parking costs, the cost of the truck (which is custom), as well as fees for kitchen usage and storage (not much storage on a truck, and you can’t really do any heavy cooking or dish washing), that you don’t have much leftover — especially since business is so random and unpredictable. Brick-and-mortars have an actual permanent location, with a roof to get out of the rain, and customer bathrooms. These are all of the advantages you get with those “overhead” costs you’re b*tching about.

  12. I have a few straight forward points to address. I am a cook, I bust my ass 10 hours a day 5-7 days a week. Chefs and sous chefs, do the same for 14-24 hours a day. How much all of these people make combined (sans Tom Douglas)? How much goes to rent, labor, training, W/S/G, utilities, and EVERY CUSTOMER WHO THINKS THEIR FOOD ISN”T UP TO STANDARD. Then every misfired dish (yes we make mistakes), every dropped plate (sorry FOH and every guest who takes off for a few minutes for a smoke while their Wagyu Steak had been fired immediately before their split decision to bounce. It is a blessing to be able to get rid of your over head, food carts are a wonderful way to do that, and they take up parking for the cars ALL of us in Seattle don’t want to flood to streets for douche crowds, gas guzzlers, etc. And if any owner or Chef thinks their restaurant will lose business? They should clearly step their game up and be BETTER than someone who cook on wheels. This is competition, come get it or get out of the industry.

  13. I am a 12 year owner of 3 street food carts, and a 6 year owner of a brick and mortar restaurant. I do not believe that this new initiative will help vendors or restaurants in any way. In the past 6 months I have been to LA, New York, And portland and would not eat anything off of any of these carts. There systems are out of control. In LA every block consists of a guy with a wooden cart, a sheetpan, and a butane burner selling hotdogs. Not even hand sanitizer let allone a required sink. I have been in this business for twelve years. The food trucks in our city are thriving enough to open brick and marter restaurants, dosen’t that tell us to leave things alone. At best I believe different areas of the city should be treated differently. A hotdog cart ouside of bar does not do the volume of a hotdog cart outside a hawks game therefore needing more space and special requirements to keep things comfortable and sanitary. Furthermore all of the businesses that currently have carts outside of them that i have talked to have told me they will not give bathroom permission if the city lets carts set up where they want in front of a business, and as a cart owner i know the health department will not allow you to set up without this. And believe me selling hotdogs outside qwest field fo 18 hours a bathroom is necessary. Plus all the city has done is hold meetings with food cart and truck owners who have just gotten into the business, Why not bring in us guys who have had more than ten years of experience?

  14. I think this is a wonderful idea…free enterprise people. As a small business owner is nothing wrong with competition it makes you stronger. Go for it Food Trucks, Carts etc…whatever floats your boat.

  15. Why don’t you come to the meetings they are open to all. The info is normally posted here or you can contact Diane of street treats. I was just in SF and it didn’t seem out of control and seemed to be working find. I lived in Portland and eat of carts there every time I am in town. In Portland you are not allowed to park on the street. This has allowed empty lots around the city to be filled with good food. If parking companies would lean towards letting us park on their lots like Portland it wouldn’t be an issue.

    thats the link for the forum the state made to find out info on.