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Food truck popularity hits Bellevue | City lacks regulations for mobile businesses
A dozen food trucks that had parked for business in the former Rudy's Barbershop lot downtown over the past several months has cleared out, but organizer Robert Schaudt said he sees demand for mobile dining in Bellevue bringing his model back.
Secretary for the Seattle Food Truck Association and Buns on Wheels owner, Schaudt said consolidating food trucks into one downtown Bellevue location makes sense, and offers variety for consumers — many being office workers — rather than driving to various locations around the city. It's not a new idea, and has long been embraced in Seattle, where Schaudt said about 65 food truck vendors open for lunch daily.
The city of Bellevue lacks policies related to mobile food trucks, some of which are allowed under a vendor cart permit adopted into the land use code in 1994. Many food trucks operating in the city currently provide service for only a few hours each day at alternating private lots and are not required to obtain a vendor cart permit. Those operating at fixed locations are required to obtain a permit.
A citizens advisory committee for the city's Downtown Livability Initiative looked at how food trucks operate in the city, but is not recommending policy changes. Bellevue staff did conduct a land use audit as part of the Downtown Livability Initiative, which included vendor carts and mobile food trucks, and notes major cities like Seattle, Portland and Boston have adopted extensive vendor cart and food truck ordinances.
Schaudt said the Bellevue Way and Main Street property was offered up as a food truck roundup location by the Vander Hoek Corporation, which will level Rudy's and other businesses around it for its mixed-use development project, The Gateway. Schaudt said July 3 was the last day trucks could use the site, as the building is planned to be razed by the end of the month.
He said he has been unsuccessful in finding property owners downtown who will agree to lease lots for a food truck roundup, either asking too much to rent the space or rejecting the idea entirely. He said he's also had poor luck convincing the city to explore allowing food trucks to set up on its undeveloped properties and rights of way. With only about 300 on-street parking spaces available in the downtown area, food trucks may have to continue to rely on private lots for their operations.
The city land use audit does point to food trucks as having positive effects in Bellevue, such as increasing pedestrian activity, offering affordable and easily accessible food options, adding vitality to vacant or underutilized sites and parking areas and adding opportunity for more small business development. However, "When a cluster of carts is located on a private site, the heightened intensity of use can negatively impact the surrounding community."
The results of a March 2013 focus group conducted by the city were mixed regarding food trucks. Some said they felt food trucks add vibrancy downtown, while others expressed concern they add unfair competition to downtown restaurants.
Bellevue Downtown Association President Patrick Bannon said restauranteur members with the association would like to see the city address food trucks under its land use code, because many are not required to acquire permits or comply with other city regulations that apply to brick-and-mortar restaurants. While the advisory committee is not making a recommendation, Bannon said he still anticipates city staff will come to council with ideas about regulating food trucks.
"The food trucks are popular. The long lines attest to it and provide a great amenity to the lunchtime crowd for sure, but you've also seen through the land use code on it that the city doesn't have any language that addresses food trucks," he said. "… I think (city staff) will come back with a framework for how to deal with mobile food truck operations the way other cities have."
There are 135 full-time food trucks registered in King County, but Schaudt said he doubts that many are currently operating. About 65 food trucks operate in Seattle during lunch on a daily basis, he said.
Schaudt said he thinks Aug. 14 will be a "wake-up call" for the city. That's when a food truck roundup will be held at Ashwood Park through collaboration with the city's parks and community services department.
"They want to look at it and see how it looks," he said, adding he has explored food truck roundups in other Eastside communities. "The only city that works here is Bellevue."