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Food trucks form alliance to combat St. Petersburg restaurants

More than a dozen vendors gathered for St. Petersburg’s first food truck rally in December. Restaurateurs oppose them.
More than a dozen vendors gathered for St. Petersburg’s first food truck rally in December. Restaurateurs oppose them.
Published Feb. 23, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — They are, by nature, disorganized, independent, tied to no one but their customers.

But Tuesday night, food truck owners and pushcart vendors formed a coalition with a clear message: We are all in this together.

"There's more power in numbers," said truck owner Mark Thompson. "We need to make ourselves heard."

The Tampa Bay Mobile Food Vending Alliance hopes to counter any push to bar food trucks from the streets. The group will make its first public stand this morning at a St. Petersburg City Council committee meeting, during which council members will be presented with several options for food trucks in the downtown area.

Group members hope a unified voice will help food vendors combat restaurateurs, who brought a slew of grievances and concerns to the Chamber of Commerce last month. The chamber has since formed a food truck committee that will present recommendations to the council.

"They're aiming at the food vendor because we're new competition and we're on wheels," said Jim Amanta, who owns the Jimmy Meatballs food truck. "But if a national chain opened up across the street, what are they going to say? 'Oh, no, you can't do that?' "

On Tuesday, more than a dozen mobile food vendors drafted their demands. Among them: open downtown to food vendors; oppose requirements that would limit how close to restaurants food trucks can operate; extend overnight time restrictions until after bars close; abolish roadside market statutes; and have clear, simple, transparent legislation.

"The changes the city was talking about were actually really favorable to us," said Sam Dudding of the Fire Monkey food truck. "Then the restaurants became active."

Several council members initially expressed interest in helping food trucks hit the streets. They recommended several changes, any number of which would make St. Petersburg among the friendliest cities in Florida for food trucks.

Once restaurants began to voice fears of losing business and concerns over food trucks' "unfair advantages," city officials balked.

Helping local entrepreneurs fight to free the food trucks are lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a self-described "libertarian public-interest law firm" from Washington, D.C.

"Everybody supports food trucks," said Christina Walsh, director of activism. "The only people who don't are the restaurants afraid of the competition. It's up to us to tell the city, it's not their job to protect these guys."

The law firm launched a national initiative aimed at reviewing vending regulations and fighting those deemed abusive or unconstitutional in cities across the country.

"Cities that support these restrictions are losing — they're losing in court and they're losing on the streets," Walsh said. "St. Petersburg has an opportunity here to be progressive, positive and open its doors to food trucks."

The City Council will discuss options for food trucks at a 9:15 a.m. meeting today.

A vote isn't expected until next month.