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St. Petersburg food truck owners, restaurateurs will try to reach compromise

ST. PETERSBURG — Food truck owners and restaurateurs will sit down together for the first time Monday to discuss how brick-and-mortar establishments can peacefully coexist with meals on wheels.

City Council members hope the session, organized at their behest, can prevent a food fight.

"My expectation is that they get together, the restaurateurs and the food truck folks, and come up with some sort of viable alternative," said council Chairwoman Leslie Curran. "The goal is to live in harmony — food truck harmony."

City staff will formulate recommendations based on Monday's discussion.

The issue of what's fair and legal has vexed the city since gourmet food trucks gained traction in the Tampa Bay area late last year. Because of decades-old legislation, food trucks are virtually barred from serving pedestrians in downtown St. Petersburg except at special events.

This, food truck owners have said, needs to change.

But restaurants, fearing a loss of customers and what they perceive to be an unfair business model, have fought back. Both two sides presented their cases to the council last week at a committee meeting.

Represented by the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, restaurateurs opposed allowing food trucks to operate in the public right of way, offering instead that the city adopt a structure that would allow for special permits and regularly occurring food truck rallies.

They asked the city to look into limiting the number of days food trucks could be downtown and to consider buffer zones that would prevent trucks from parking outside restaurant doors.

But the Tampa Bay Mobile Food Vending Alliance, a newly formed group that represents food truck and pushcart vendors, said that's not enough.

"A lot of what's going on is based on fear of the unknown," said food truck owner Jim Janolek, who presented to the council last week. "We are all independent business owners. We do food truck rallies together, but that's not our business model."

Since food trucks are not built to operate out of the diagonal parking spots that line much of Central Avenue, they won't be able to park in the right of way.

Food truck advocates, aided by lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a "libertarian public-interest law firm" that has taken on the fight for mobile vendors around the country, also presented a legal case.

"We made it clear that it's unconstitutional to regulate businesses, even if you're only trying to level the playing field, and that these laws are being overturned in other parts of the country," lawyer Claudia Murray said. "I think that was shocking to some people who hadn't heard that argument before."

Food vendors and chamber officials said they were optimistic about reaching an understanding at Monday's meeting.

If they don't, the council will have to decide which option is best. The city could allow the trucks to park alongside city parks, grant property owners the ability to allow trucks on their lots or in front of their businesses, or keep the ban intact.

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com.

St. Petersburg food truck owners, restaurateurs will try to reach compromise 03/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 30, 2012 12:01am]
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