St. Petersburg poised to do an about-face on food trucks

ST. PETERSBURG — A city once starved of food trucks could soon become one of the most welcoming in the state.

As things stand, food trucks in St. Petersburg are virtually barred from serving their cuisine to pedestrians outside a special event setting.

But that could all change in 2012.

Several options are on the table: Allow food trucks to operate in vacant lots in and around downtown; encourage food trucks to collaborate with private businesses; grant food trucks access to areas near the Pier or along Beach Drive.

Instituting a number of these could make St. Petersburg one of the most food truck-friendly cities in Florida, outstripping Miami, Orlando and Tampa, which hosts monthly rallies and allows trucks to operate on private property during lunch hours.

"We will see food trucks in downtown St. Petersburg sometime soon," said council member Herbert Polson. "The devil's in the detail."

The food truck phenomenon, which has flourished in cities such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles, only recently made its way to the Tampa Bay area. Food trucks offer chefs a low-cost alternative to brick and mortar restaurants and casual, inexpensive, quality eats to diners.

For two months, the city staff has been devising a road map on how best to handle the trucks outside a rally setting. Lawyers, police and firefighters have been consulted.

Council members, too, have been brainstorming, spending time pondering things like fish tacos.

They will discuss their findings next month.

"Overall, people like the idea because it's something different," said District 4 council member Leslie Curran. "I really haven't heard from anyone who's against it."

What the people crave is clear.

How best to deliver? That's where it gets murky.

Council member Jeff Danner said allowing food trucks on vacant lots would encourage economic growth and revitalize unused areas of the city.

Council member Steve Kornell said trucks should be required to obtain special permits that limit when and where they can operate.

Curran said private property owners should be able to allow trucks to park in their lot during lunchtime.

Council member Wengay Newton said trucks might do better on the street, but they should not be allowed to block traffic or endanger pedestrians.

One thing council members agree on: They want food trucks in St. Petersburg.

"I think we should just find a way to say, 'yes,' " council member Karl Nurse said. "Let's go ahead and try to open the door and see what happens."

Allowing food trucks to operate out of vacant lots has gained traction since the idea was brought up at a November meeting.

In Orlando, food trucks can operate jointly with private businesses, but must remain at least 10 feet from the road. In Miami, the first city in Florida to boast a food truck scene, harsher regulations were instated over the summer. In Tampa, food trucks are limited to special events and private lots.

"We have a unique opportunity to use vacant properties for this kind of eating adventure," Danner said.

A key issue city officials have sought to address is how food trucks can coexist with brick and mortar restaurants.

In other cities, such as New York, food trucks and restaurants neared all-out war when mobile vendors sold their inexpensive gourmet fare on the street just outside restaurants.

"It's not the city's place to regulate free competition, but we also don't want these trucks pulling up right in front of restaurants' front doors," Kornell said. "We'll need to enforce some rule of separation."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

St. Petersburg poised to do an about-face on food trucks 12/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 2:29pm]

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