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Our Editorial: Don’t curtail food trucks in Detroit

The Detroit News

Anyone who works in or visits downtown Detroit around lunchtime has likely run across the new fleet of food trucks. Near Campus Martius, the row of trucks often have long lines of eager customers. People love them. As Detroit City Council works to construct a more cohesive regulatory framework for food trucks, the goal should be to ease entry into the market, not close it off.

Fortunately, council says it wants to make Detroit friendlier to food entrepreneurs, which is a welcome restart of efforts that were pushed aside during the city’s bankruptcy.

Food trucks have increasingly become a staple downtown by offering a diverse menu and allowing entrepreneurs a less costly entry into the food industry than a traditional brick and mortar restaurant.

According to Robert Gregory, Downtown Detroit Partnership’s chief public spaces officer, Cadillac Square will rent out space to more than 25 different food trucks and smaller food vendors this summer. Gregory estimates the number of food trucks in all of Metro Detroit to be more than 50 and still growing.

Ross Resnick, founder and CEO of food truck network Roaming Hunger, estimates that food trucks in Detroit could generate $5 million to $15 million in revenue this year.

But even with the food truck business exploding in Detroit, the city’s licensing process hasn’t caught up with the trend. This makes the current push by council important.

“Innovation that’s happening in this sector is ahead of what’s happening in regulation,” says Colin Packard of FoodLab Detroit, which represents a variety of locally owned food businesses.

Food truck operators face a number of challenges. Packard says the process for getting a license to operate a food truck in Detroit is confusing.

According to city rules, food truck operators must have two licenses: a food license that either allows food trucks to make their own food or mandates them to use a food preparation facility, or commissary, as well as a temporary business license from the city. The city doesn’t have business licenses specifically for food trucks.

Since getting a license is often the first step someone must take when opening a food business, the confusion surrounding food truck licensing makes starting a new venture more difficult, and it has caused some to enter the industry unlicensed.

To make licensing in the city more straightforward, Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López is spearheading an effort to clean up contradictory regulations. She is coordinating with city departments on a draft expected late this year.

Along with making licensing requirements more uniform, Castañeda-López’s chief of staff, Norma Huizar, says allowing online licensing and posting information on a city website are options being discussed.

The City Council should continue to work toward licensing requirements for food trucks that are more uniform and easier to understand. But the council must refrain from shackling this burgeoning pop-up food scene.