The test of Tacoma's pilot project to encourage food carts downtown starts now.
No one has started the application process, and only a handful of people have expressed interest, city and public health officials say. They hope for more after Tuesday, when the City Council approved code changes meant to encourage sidewalk vendors.
One noteworthy change would allow licensed street vendors to operate in Tollefson Plaza free of charge, in addition to two other locations.
“A lot of people are buying a cart,” said Mike Davis, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s food program coordinator, “but would you spend $10,000 on a maybe?”
Davis was part of a task force of downtown businesspeople and city and public health officials who have been working for weeks on the street vending pilot project. Task force members said this week that they’ve followed the best practices of Multnomah County in Oregon, where Portland has a thriving street vendor scene. Most carts there are bigger than the ones envisioned for Tacoma, where the carts must be off the street each night.
Local task force members said their biggest accomplishment was eliminating the overlap between city and public health requirements. They said they are committed to guiding potential vendors through the process quickly.
“We’ve made a huge leap forward from where we were even six months ago,” said Chelsea Levy of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber. “There was a lot of paperwork – even more than there is now.”
The biggest change for food vendors is a relaxation of the Health Department’s commissary rule for the pilot project area, bounded by South Seventh Street, South 21st Street, A Street and Market Street. Carts operating there can return to an approved food preparation site each night instead of needing to operate just 200 feet away from it.
Food vendors still face a long list of requirements. A brochure prepared by the Health Department lists 23 items for the cart alone. Vendors must have written approval from downtown property owners where they want to set up shop. They must prove they have access to a bathroom with running hot and cold water within 200 feet of their cart – a distance of about two-thirds of a football field.
That’s on top of the fees for cart and commissary inspections and permits, a city license and insurance.
“Becoming a small-business owner can be really daunting,” said Patricia Lecy-Davis, owner of Embellish Salon and a downtown business leader involved in the pilot. She is not related to Mike Davis. “What we’re trying to do through this first process of the food carts is find the areas we need to make the connections.”
Every form a downtown street vendor will need can be found at both the city’s tax and licensing office and the Health Department. Davis said he’d meet with potential food vendors individually to go over the rules, so the inspection and permitting process goes smoothly and costs are minimized.
Davis said food safety is his primary concern, and he doesn’t want to set food vendors up for failure.
“That’s why it’s a pilot. We’re going to be working some stuff out,” he said. “Hot dog carts, I’ve been approving them for years. It’s not rocket science. It’s the aspect of opening up to other types of food without a support kitchen nearby. We want to see how these people will work this.”
Larry Henning of Lakewood is building his own hot dog cart. He said Monday that he’s interested in the pilot program, but he’s concerned about a customer base.
“The purpose (of the pilot program) is to bring people downtown, which means that sometimes there aren’t people down there,” he said.
Levy said people who live and work downtown are eager for more services, and street vendors’ presence will help draw others to the area.
“Portland is really the frontrunner as far as street food vending,” she said. “We followed the Portland model and the requirements they’ve created. They have a very vibrant scene that we hope to emulate.”