In pondering the role that food carts and food trucks can play in Vancouver, Business editor Gordon Oliver of The Columbian summed it up nicely in a recent article: "To those who love a taste of city life, there's something about the presence of food carts that makes a city feel real."
Food carts have become one of the hallmarks of any thriving urban area, lending vitality as they grow in popularity among young entrepreneurial workers. Many of the cities at the forefront of the industry — Portland; Seattle; Austin, Texas — are among the hippest, most creative cities in the nation. That's not to suggest that Vancouver could become a mecca for the food cart culture; the city doesn't have the necessary population density or the requisite foot traffic in its downtown core. But it is to suggest that food carts and food trucks could lend a little energy to the city, and that local leaders should rework rules in order to support such businesses.
As Oliver wrote, both the city of Vancouver and Clark County are considering a review of policies that impact mobile food operations. The county Board of Commissioners last week approved new standards for small coffee and food stands, which previously had to meet the same standards as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The city is planning a review of its regulatory process, addressing issues such as: whether to regulate the proximity of food trucks to existing restaurants; whether to allow enclaves of food trucks; and whether to make it easier to establish food carts.
While maintaining all existing health and food safety standards, officials should work to ease these rules and encourage the establishment of food carts and trucks. Give entrepreneurs an opportunity, and then let the market decide whether the businesses will be a success.
Of course, not everybody agrees. As Tommy Owens, owner of downtown restaurant Tommy O's, told The Columbian: "I've spent the last 23 years trying to build a profitable business. We're all sharing the same market, and I don't see a lot of new businesses coming in." That is a valid point. While food carts might be the cool new thing in urban areas, traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants provide stability and a consistent tax base for a downtown core, and food carts should not be allowed to operate on the street or sidewalk in front of such businesses.
Lee Rafferty, executive director of the Vancouver Downtown Association, said of food carts: "The VDA sees them as part of a vibrant downtown. It's a great option for folks," but "we understand there's a bit of tension."
Still, we can't help thinking that food carts and restaurants can coexist. Small, mobile food outlets will not replace traditional restaurants for business lunches or dates or any kind of meal where a sit-down conversation is appropriate. They also won't replace traditional restaurants for the dinnertime crowd. Yet food carts can offer variety and flexibility for consumers, often providing unique menu options, and they can enhance the vitality of an area. Those things have value to a city.
Vancouver is not destined to be overrun by mobile food outlets, but with a little work and a little cooperation from the city and a lot of creativity on the part of vendors, food carts can be woven into the fabric of the region. To ignore the burgeoning industry would be akin to pretending some 20 years ago that cellphones had no future. Food carts will be an important part of urban areas in the years to come, and Vancouver should be well-positioned to take advantage of that fact.