Gary Amaral pursues his favorite mobile-food outlet, driving miles at a time for a tasty lunch.
"I follow these people around," he said as he waited for his order at the Marination truck parked in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood this week. He drove from West Seattle. "I've probably been here 10 times now. It's better than going to a fast-food place. It makes me wish I'd had the idea a few years ago."
Seattle is now joining the pursuit, preparing to open itself up for more street-level vendors, an idea with plenty of appeal but one that also leaves its own set of questions - like where's the best place to put restaurants on wheels.
"I'd love to have more mobile food in the neighborhood. but I would want to make sure that they didn't end up being nuisances by blocking sidewalks or entrances to buildings," said Jen Powers, president of the community council on Capitol Hill, where some experimentation might take place.
Since the 1980s the city has banned mobile food vending from city streets. Sidewalk carts are allowed, by permit, but can only be used to sell coffee, popcorn, hotdogs or flowers.
Now, pressed by downtown interests and the industry, the city is re-assessing the limits on streetside food, wondering if an expansion of pavement-level food sales could lure more people onto the streets, enlivening that scene and maybe reducing crime. A package of proposed city code changes is expected to be presented to City Council members shortly, in time for council members to consider and approve changes by summer if they're inclined to.
The move toward more relaxed rules is "an acknowledgement that a lot of people enjoy getting food from carts," said Brian DePlace, right-of-way manager for the city Department of Transportation.
If it happens, "I'm anticipating we'll see a real evolution of the street-food scene here," said Gary Johnson, center-city coordinator for the city Department of Planning and Development. "There's a lot of latent demand."
One proposal is to open up special vending zones in the streets, similar to loading zones, where mobile outlets could sell their wares during specified hours, under authority of permits they'd buy to help pay for inspections and regulation.
A city team also is considering proposals to drop the requirement that adjacent landowners approve any street-side food operations but adding a requirement that any mobile food outlet be at least 50 feet away from a permanently-based restaurant, for competitive reasons. Business owners could still object to a cart location, with the city ultimately deciding.
Proposals under discussion would allow building-based restaurants to sell food on the sidewalk as an extension of their business outdoors. Another option is to allow vendors to set up on temporary parking lots set up on vacant land.
Potential locations considered
DePlace said his agency expects to propose a year-long test of as many as 10 street-level food-vending sites as part of an experiment. Among those being considered: Broadway at the Sound Transit rail station site and at a new plaza planned for Westlake Avenue near the streetcar line. Other possibilities include Occidental Park.
City staffers said they plan to circulate proposals to neighborhoods and interested groups before the go to the council.
As things stand now the vendors selling food from vehicles must look for places to park on private property, where they operate legally, or park on the street and risk being ticketed or shut down. "It wasn't easy finding locations," said Kamala Saxton, co-owner of Marination.
Whatever the legalities, food vendors can attract large crowds. As many as 55 people were lined up down a block to Marination's food truck during its last visit to Fremont as lunch-goers queued up for orders of marinated short ribs, pork tacos or spam sliders (small sandwiches of seasoned pork or spam with slaw, on buns).
Vendors move from location during the week, depending on what they can arrange. They use websites and twitter accounts to alert customers to their whereabouts and to special dishes.
"I think it's a great idea. I love the informality of it," said Maria Smith of West Seattle, waiting to order a taco. Other patrons liked the idea of adding more outlets and of having the city changes its rules to permit more.
"I'm surprised they haven't already," said Shari Soma as she waited for food from a truck on Fremont's Canal Street this week. "I see lots of (vendors) around."
City officials say they're getting more inquiries from potential vendors about getting into the business, though the numbers of licensed food vendors county-wide hasn't fluctuated much in the past two years from the current 400.
Public Health -- Seattle & King County, which licenses and inspects food vendors and restaurants, will soon begin allowing sidewalk carts to offer a greater variety of food than just hot dogs and popcorn. It still won't allow sidewalk carts without stoves to cook raw protein such as meat, chicken, fish and eggs, said Mark Rowe, the health agency's food inspection manager, though larger mobile vendors with stoves can keep doing so.
In Portland, with its well-developed mobile food-vending industry, the vending outlets encourage "social interactions, walkability and (provide) interim uses for vacant parcels," said a 2008 study by a consultant, the Urban Vitality Group. The study also noted, though, that some businesses felt the vendors had "an unfair advantage" because of lower costs and that clusters of them "can negatively impact the surrounding community, primarily from the lack of trash cans."
The number of licensed mobile food vendors in Portland and Multnomah County has jumped from 317 in 2006 to 459 this year. There are very few complaints about the vendor food causing illnesses. "It seems like the public really likes them," said county health spokeswoman Rosa Klein.
How an expansion might play out in Seattle will depend on what changes it makes in the mobile-food landscape. As usual, though, an expansion carries some complications in a city where street space and parking are already at a premium.
Eliminating the requirement for approval by an adjacent landowner could anger business owners, said Pioneer Square gallery owner Catherine Person. "I'm all for carts, especially in Occidental Park…where we have lots of room. In front of businesses it's great, if everybody's happy with it (but) going through a vetting process to defend your store-front is an aggravation."
In the stadium area, food-vending crowds could create a dangerous mix with trucks moving in and out of nearby businesses, and more litter could result when some "people buy, walk, eat and toss" the packaging, said Pioneer Square resident Sara-Jane Bellanca.
Johnson agrees that "enforcement is an issue."
The city will have to decide whether to charge moving food vendors some share of the fees for services like street sweeping and garbage collection provided by business-improvement districts, like the one on Broadway, when the vendors do business there.
"I think there is value in allowing more (mobile vendors) in Seattle," said City Councilwoman Sally Clark, chairwoman of the council's Committee on the Built Environment that may ponder the needed city code changes. "I'm a fan of the idea. I know it's got challenges."
Clark expects proposed legislation to come to the council by early summer. It's not clear exactly when the council might act but Clark predicts members will agree to allow more mobile vendors because "right now we have so little."