CLEARWATER — Food trucks have become a lively trend in Tampa Bay, attracting hundreds of people each month in Tampa and St. Petersburg. But Clearwater, the second-largest city in Pinellas County and a tourist destination in its own right, seems unlikely to hop on board. That's because city codes prohibit food trucks, and there's a lack of interest in changing that.
"I'm not ready to open up Clearwater to food trucks at this time," said Mayor George Cretekos, citing the increased competition it would pose to established restaurants. "I would like to see our restaurants try to survive in this tough economic time. There's no business more difficult than the restaurant business."
In addition, Cretekos and planning director Michael Delk said no one has even approached them about the possibility of bringing food trucks to Clearwater. "I have not had a conversation with anybody," Cretekos said.
But Michael Blasco, president of Tasting Tampa, which has sponsored many large food truck rallies in the Tampa Bay area, said he tried unsuccessfully to lobby for rallies in Clearwater. Blasco said he called Cretekos' office a few months ago but was redirected elsewhere.
"I couldn't get the mayor on the phone, so it never went anywhere," he said. "I didn't get the warm-and-fuzzy that we were going to be able to do it."
City law forbids the selling or peddling of goods from trucks and other vehicles in large sections of Clearwater, including on Cleveland Street. For those areas not included in the ban, vendors need a permit. But Clearwater's community development code doesn't establish food trucks as acceptable recipients of permits. Delk said city law might allow for a one-time food truck event, but would need to be amended to allow for weekly or monthly rallies.
But the will needed for such change to happen is noticeably absent — and not just among city officials. The government affairs committee of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce discussed food trucks at its January meeting, said Kathleen Peters, the chamber's vice president of public affairs.
Peters said restaurant owners said they had no problem with the idea of food truck festivals. "What they have issues with is, on a weekday lunch hour, bringing them in and parking them on Cleveland Street," she said, adding that they doubted there's enough demand in downtown Clearwater to justify more vendors. "They didn't really feel that there was an employment hub per se that was big enough to accommodate something like that."
"Here in Clearwater, when offices in Clearwater break for lunch, I'm trying to think of a restaurant that you would have a hard time getting a seat in," said Hoyt Hamilton, whose family owns the Palm Pavilion.
Hamilton added that the relatively low cost of maintenance for food trucks gives them an advantage over restaurants. "I sure as heck don't want somebody in a food truck pulling up and just opening the window," he said.
But Blasco said restaurants' concern that food trucks will siphon away their business is uninformed. "Every single city we go into has that exact sentiment until we throw an event there," he said. "And then it's the busiest day of the year that they have."
If city officials were to embrace the idea of food truck rallies, Blasco said he could make that happen.
"If Tasting Tampa was able to get in touch with the mayor," he said, "we'd probably be able to have a rally there in four weeks."