It’s lunchtime, and a crowd gathers around a kitchen rich with the aroma of Carolina-style pulled pork and chicken at Commerce and Pratt streets. Not too far away, Central American-style tacos compete with Korean bulgogi and bibimbap at Charles and Baltimore.
These people aren’t in line at restaurants — they’re congregating around food trucks, which have exploded in popularity in Baltimore over the past two years.
After a 2011 incident in which the owner of a popular truck was told to shut down for not having a license she didn’t know she needed, city legislation created an easier licensing process, in addition to designated “food truck zones” where the vendors can park freely. Two years and dozens of new trucks later, many operators say the legislation was a success.
Drew Pumphrey, proprietor of The Smoking Swine, appreciates that the city is working proactively with food truck operators.
“I consider Baltimore to be the tip of the spear [regarding food trucks],” he said.
Only a handful of trucks roamed Baltimore’s streets a few year ago, but now the city boasts about 50, according to Anthony Richardson, co-owner of IcedGems Creations, one of the early Baltimore trucks.
As lunch breaks get shorter and fast food more blasé, food trucks have found a niche with those looking for unusual twists on staples like burgers and tacos, or unique offerings like macaroni and cheese in waffle cones, all served quickly.
While the city and food truck owners are discussing updates to the 2011 laws, the current versions represent a major improvement from previous years, operators say.
Ashwini Persaud, proprietor of the Wheyich food truck, said she chose Baltimore over Washington, D.C., or New York, which also have vibrant food truck scenes, because the former’s licensing process was “such a pain,” and the latter’s wait list for licenses was 10 years long.
Since the 2011 laws passed, according to Pumphrey, licenses are easy to acquire with “due diligence.”
Still, operators believe the legislation has room for improvement. Willy Dely, operator of Kooper’s Chowhound Burger Wagon and president of the Maryland Mobile Food Vending Association, said as the number of food trucks has increased, downtown parking spaces are becoming hard to find. The MMFVA is working with the city to update food truck legislation, addressing “everything…from permitting to parking.”
Richardson added that food truck owners need health permits and multiple licenses for every county in which they operate, in addition to renting a commissary where food can be prepared according to the local health department rules.
In Baltimore, parking can sometimes be an issue, despite the use of designated zones. Rob Raber, co-owner of the Kommie Pig, said more zones are needed because older food trucks tend to scoop up their favorite spots and stay there.
Many food trucks have responded to the parking challenges by taking to social media, using Twitter and Facebook to alert customers where they will be that day — sometimes just a few hours before lunchtime, depending on parking availability.
City officials also see room for improvement. Alvin Gillard, chairman of the Baltimore Street Vendors Board, said the city is dissatisfied with the licensing process because it is confusing to applicants.
“There is absolutely a place for food trucks in the city,” Gillard said. “The challenge is to shore up the permitting process from beginning to end.”
As food trucks grew in popularity, some were concerned about their potential impact on brick-and-mortar restaurants. Detractors feared food trucks would set up outside restaurants and steal customers — without having to pay rent and taxes.
As part of the 2011 law update, Baltimore requires that food trucks remain 300 feet from a brick-and-mortar restaurant that sells similar food, and truck operators respect the law, Gillard said.
Pumphrey noted that sit-down restaurants tend to attract a different customer than food trucks, so few customers are being diverted
“I know how hard it is to make a living selling food,” he said.
For traditional restaurants that also operate trucks, such as Kooper’s Tavern in Fells Point, the roving eateries often act as mobile billboards for the established restaurant. Sometimes trucks precede more traditional shops — IcedGems’s mobile success led to a brick-and-mortar location in Reisterstown.
The city isn’t the only place where trucks are gaining popularity; Baltimore County is currently debating a bill that will, for the first time, define food trucks separately from other street vendors and emulate the city’s 300-foot minimum distance. Donnell Zeigler, a member of the county’s Department of Planning, said the bill will also ease the permitting process and no longer require food trucks to move continuously.
Dely said he supports the bill, describing it as a “compromise” that will help the industry grow.
“What makes Baltimore unique is the relationship between the city agencies and food trucks,” he said. “We’ve been working together since the beginning of the food truck phenomenon to make Baltimore’s food truck scene better for all.”
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