After months of debate, food truck rules relaxed in New Orleans

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson knew she would lose. But she took a shot anyway, pushing one last time on Thursday to ban food trucks from getting within spitting distance of New Orleans’ revered traditional restaurants.

She would find no support.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s bid to free mobile food vendors from a number of decades-old restrictions, including one that forced the trucks to keep 600 feet between themselves and brick-and-mortar restaurants, passed the council 6-0 Thursday, with Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell absent.

Clarkson voted for the measure, but in a last-ditch effort, she sought to put a smaller “buffer zone” of 100 feet in place, saying traditional restaurants are deserving of “economic protection.”

But she withdrew the amendment after failing to find a colleague on the council sympathetic enough to second her motion and send it to a vote.

“Anyone’s welcome to second it if they would like,” Clarkson said. “I am fully not expecting a second and I am prepared for that. I just thought it was very important that I put this on the record and give full warning to everyone on both sides of this issue.”

The buffer zone had been the subject of much of the debate surrounding the changes aimed at supporting New Orleans’ burgeoning food truck scene.

On one side, Landrieu and mobile food vendors argued that creating a buffer zone around restaurants gave an unfair protection to businesses that aren’t really under threat, a move that could put the city in violation of the constitution and leave it open to lawsuits.

On the other, the Louisiana Restaurant Association argued that allowing the trucks to set up outside traditional restaurants would present unfair competition for businesses that have greater overhead costs and could hurt one of the city’s signature industries.

Under the new law, mobile food vendors can not operate “in any manner that impedes the ingress or egress of any operating building or structure during its operating hours.”

Trucks can park anywhere zoned for commercial, industrial or mixed use, but would need to apply for a “franchise” from the city to park elsewhere. Each application would require council approval.

The law does not set limits on how close food trucks can come to traditional restaurants. The Restaurant Association questioned the constitutionality of that provision at Thursday’s meeting.

“Our concern is that if constitutionality is an issue, you really need to look at the ingress and egress provision, because there’s no spatial distance in that provision and courts have held that that’s unconstitutional because it doesn’t provide adequate notice,” said Alan Yacoubian, general counsel for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

The push to loosen the reins on food truck operators has been gaining ground since February, when Councilmember Stacy Head introduced changes to the rules that would increase the number permits available for such mobile food vendors and increase the amount of time they could spend parked in one spot.

Head’s changes were passed by the council in April, but vetoed by Landrieu, who wanted the measure to exclude a buffer zone. Head’s ordinance proposed 200 feet between the restaurants and trucks.

The new ordinance allows the city to give out 100 food truck permits. Food truck operators previously have been included in the 100 permits the city permits for all types of mobile food sellers. Parts of the city, including the French Quarter, are off limits because of safety concerns.

Food trucks that apply for a franchise must post an official public notice of the pending application in the same block as the proposed franchise that gives the date, time and location of the council meeting during which the application will be considered to give neighbors an opportunity to weigh in.