New Orleans — The year was 1956.
Fidel Castro landed in Cuba at the start of the Cuban Revolution; Elvis Presley released “Heart Break Hotel,” his first hit single; Chep Morrison was in the New Orleans Mayor’s Office; and down the hall the City Council was writing the mobile vending laws.
But that was another era. The Cuban Revolution is long over, Elvis’ hits are now oldies, and seven mayors have since led the city.
And these days, the laws governing the growing number of food trucks in town since Hurricane Katrina are outdated, according to operators.
At-large Councilwoman Stacy Head said during a Tuesday meeting of the City Council’s economic development committee that she will work with the Landrieu administration and Louisiana Restaurant Association in hopes of rewriting the laws, possibly by year’s end. That, however, is not a definite time frame.
In order to help get out the message about the discussion of rewriting the laws and to give an example of what she and operators say are the positives of having food trucks in the city, a food truck festival will take place Thursday in Central City.
Rachel Billow, who serves Latin-American food from her truck La Cocinita, told the committee that there are several hindrances she and other food-truck operators face.
Among the issues: a cap of 100 permits, limiting trucks to 45 minutes in one spot, banning them from being within 600 feet of a school or established restaurant and a prohibition of food trucks in the French Quarter and Central Business District.
“We’re trying right now to figure out ways to thoughtfully change that law, to totally revamp that law to be accommodating to this burgeoning new industry that is pretty amazing,” Head said.
Head and Billow contend that reworking the laws will only help the city.
New tax dollars will flow into the city’s coffers; “food deserts,” such as parts of the CBD, eastern New Orleans and Lower 9th Ward, will have new options for food; and some trucks will morph into brick-and-mortar businesses.
Additionally, every 20 new trucks would create 100 jobs (40 full-time and 60 part-time), Billow said.
One hundred new permits would create 500 full-time and part-time jobs, she added.
No one spoke during the Tuesday meeting, but several council members seemed to support the idea of rewriting the laws.
Council Vice President Jackie Clarkson said she remembers vendors from her childhood. “We couldn’t have lived without them,” she said.
However, she wondered if the sanitary conditions of what are essentially traveling kitchens will be a priority.
Head and Billow said there are regular inspections, like any other restaurants. “They are clean, and if they’re not, they’re shut down by the state,” Head said.
Interim District B Councilwoman Diana Bajoie said she was baffled by the existing geographic restrictions that keep the trucks out of the CBD and away from places such as Lafayette Square.
“I think that’s really kind of asinine. I don’t see why somebody couldn’t be around a park. To me that seems the best place to be,” she said.
Another good place the trucks can be are neighborhoods that have seen better days, such as Central City, Billow said.
“This helps in terms of reducing crime and increasing foot traffic to these up-and-coming neighborhoods,” she said.
Thursday’s food truck festival will demonstrate that, Billow and Head said.
The event will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the 2000 block of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, at St. Andrew Street.