By Daniel J. Chacón The Santa Fe New Mexican.
In cities across America, the food truck industry appears to be thriving, offering everything from gourmet cuisine to waffle sandwiches dripping in cheese.
But in the city of Santa Fe, regulations have inhibited the industry's expansion.
That could change under a proposal policymakers are considering that would ease restrictions and open up the market not just for food trucks but also for other mobile vendors.
Currently, the city issues only 15 permits to so-called street vendors: 10 to sell food and five to sell other kinds of merchandise. The permits to sell food disappear faster than a honey-soaked sopaipilla at Tia Sophia's. These permits are separate from the limited number of permits that allow sales on the Santa Fe Plaza.
Under a proposed ordinance, which is aimed at creating business opportunities and giving consumers more choices, the city would offer an unlimited number of permits to what would now be called vehicle vendors.
Removal of the cap on the number of permits issued under the new ordinance would not be limited to the sale of food and drink, but would include sales of merchandise, such as a picture-framing shop on wheels, and services, such as a mobile manicurist.
"It really opens up a lot of business opportunities for people that didn't exist before," Matt O'Reilly, the city's asset development director, said Tuesday.
The ordinance includes a number of rules and restrictions. For example, mobile vendors would be prohibited from parking for more than three hours a day at any one location or within a 300-foot radius of any location where they previously parked the same day, unless they're part of a special event.
Food trucks also would be prohibited from parking within a 150-foot radius of the street-level entrance of any restaurant during the restaurant's operating hours unless they have permission or are participating in a special event.
The ordinance creates a distinction between mobile vehicle vendors and stationary vehicle vendors. While the city doesn't propose to limit the number of stationary vehicle vendors operating on private property, these businesses would have to comply with zoning and other land-use requirements.
Under an accompanying resolution, the city would allow mobile vehicle vendors to sell within the coveted "Plaza periphery," an area bounded on the west by Sandoval Street and Grant Avenue, by Alameda Street on the south, Paseo de Peralta on the east and Marcy Street on the north. The city would designate three on-street parking spaces on the south side of Palace Avenue adjacent to First National Bank for use by mobile vehicle vendors only between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., when the bank is closed.
The three spaces would be available on a first-come, first-served basis, which generated concerns for City Councilor Patti Bushee during Monday's meeting of the city Public Works Committee.
Bushee questioned whether other businesspeople, such as vendors on the Plaza, would "resent" the city allowing mobile vehicle vendors on what is "essentially the Plaza." Bushee also suggested the city give preferential treatment to the Street Food Institute, which has a truck that serves as a mobile classroom for culinary students at Santa Fe Community College.
"If we're going to build in spots, I think nonprofits should have the first shot," she said. "It just feels like treating them different might be OK. I just think we're going to cause problems where we didn't have problems before, the way the resolution is written."
Bushee said she had "no problem" with the ordinance, but she abstained from voting on the resolution, saying she had questions and wanted to talk to the sponsor, City Councilor Signe Lindell.
Lindell said Tuesday that she plans to bring the resolution forward as written and that the city could conduct a review in three or six months to gauge how it's working.
"We don't know if we're going to get people that want those three spots or if we won't get people," she said, adding that if the three spots prove "wildly successful, we could consider adding a few more spots."
Mobile food trucks produced positive responses last year during a three-night, city-sponsored downtown festival called Night Wave. Three food trucks were part of the event, generating $5,600 in sales combined. Organizers of the event reported that most people surveyed said they would eat at a food truck at least 50 percent of the time when they went out to the bars.
"Food trucks were a key component to Night Wave's success," organizers wrote. "They created an energy and aesthetic that felt vibrant and welcoming and less aggressive. More money was spent by attendees, and the overall quality of experience was increased."
The proposed resolution allowing mobile vehicle vendors within the Plaza periphery is tied to an initiative by Mayor Javier Gonzales to bring more people to the city's historic square. As part of the so-called People to the Plaza initiative, the city analyzed existing ordinances related to food sales.
Gonzales, one of four co-sponsors of the ordinance easing restrictions on mobile food vendors, said he was excited about the opportunities it presented.
"There's a whole sector of businesses that we're falling behind on, from food trucks to mobile art galleries and more," he said, "and I think we're going to find that Santa Fe has a generation of young entrepreneurs with a lot of variety to offer this community."
City Councilor Chris Rivera said Monday that during neighborhood meetings in his district, he met three people who "specifically asked" that the city ease up the rules governing mobile food vendors.
"They live here in the city of Santa Fe, and they travel every day to Rio Rancho or Albuquerque to basically sell their product because they could not get ... a license here in the city," said Rivera, another co-sponsor.
"I think it's going to be a good thing, at least for those three people," he said, "and I imagine there may be more once the rules are eased up a little bit."