PORTLAND, Maine — The food truck movement is hitting high-profile speed bumps in some major U.S. cities. But in Portland, where the scene is emerging this spring, vendors and city officials say they have an opportunity to succeed where other cities are struggling.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt to have seen what has happened in these other communities over the last few years,” said Portland City Planner Jeffrey Levine.
Earlier this month, a New York Times columnist skewered Manhattan ’s food truck scene for being severely limited by erratic enforcement and onerous, outdated regulations that block the trendy mobile eateries from setting up too close to schools or public markets.
In Washington, D.C., controversy swirled earlier this year about proposed new food truck rules that would confine the street-side businesses to specific urban zones. It set off a public relations war between truck operators and traditional restaurateurs over whether the city is being unfairly restrictive.
But in Portland, those in the food truck business are optimistic that Maine’s largest and foodiest city can avoid those clashes and see the industry explode. There are eight permanent food trucks either licensed or in the process of being licensed in Portland, a figure that dwarfs any other Maine city.
Last year in Portland at this time there were none. But across the state line, food trucks have been revving up in Boston for years.
“It helps not to be the first folks doing it,” Levine said. “My feeling, and I think the feeling of most people in city hall, is, ‘Let’s get a system up and running and then examine it and see how it can be improved.’”
After a long period of review, the city council approved an ordinance allowing food trucks in Portland for the first time last summer. It came with conditions. On the peninsula — areas of the city south of Interstate 295 — food trucks must be parked at least 65 feet from each other or any other commercial kitchen. In the rest of the city, these meals on wheels have to be spaced 200 feet from another food truck or restaurant.
Also, food truck operators must pay for a $500 license and a $110 inspection fee. Those who are set up on private land, such as parking lots or undeveloped parcels, must apply for a $30 building permit and $75 occupancy permit for each lot they park on. The latter two are one-time fees.
As in other cities, the fees and space regulations approved by the Portland City Council represents a compromise between food truck owners, who want their businesses legalized, and traditional restaurateurs, who worry about competition. So far here, there have been few conflicting interests. The city is small enough to be agile, flexible and make changes in the ordinance quickly to encourage growth, officials say.
“It’s like where Boston’s food truck scene was a few years ago,” said Karl Sutton, co-owner of the lobster roll food truck Bite Into Maine, which has a Portland permit but is regularly set up at Fort Williams Park in nearby Cape Elizabeth. “There were a lot of restrictions, but people started getting used to them, saw that restaurants weren’t closing down, and they loosened up a bit,” said Sutton.
Levine said he’s heard complaints about the additional building and occupancy permit fees for private lots, which are paid on top of the lease payments operators make to property owners. Also, the distances required between trucks can prevent mobile eateries from clustering, as they do in Portland, Oregon and attracting more foot traffic.
Levine recently hired urban designer Caitlin Cameron, who worked for the Boston Redevelopment Authority on that city’s food truck regulations. He said his team is reviewing those aspects of the ordinance and may recommend changes to the City Council.
“We’re lucky enough to have someone in our office who worked on the food truck ordinance there [in Boston],” Levine said. “One thing we’re looking at is the cost of doing business and the cost of relocating and making sure it’s not inappropriate. We do also have to think about the bricks-and-mortar restaurants and their concerns as we think about this.”
Food truck operators are willing to be patient while the city adjusts the dials of its ordinance to find the right balance.
“Like with anything new you put into the system, there are some wrinkles to be ironed out,” said Joseph Urtuzuastegui, who runs Mexican food truck El Corazon with his wife Laura, stepdaughter April Garcia and local Miles Perry. “The food truck industry has been a growing revolution across the country, and we’re just glad Portland has decided to get on board.”
Danielle Salvaggio who runs The Squeeze, a food truck specializing in fresh-squeezed lemonade stationed outside The Home Depot on Riverside Street, said food truck operators are largely willing to be flexible to make their businesses work.
“It’s about seeing what the guidelines are, where you’re allowed to set up and how you can make things work,” she said.
As the tourists season shifts into gear, food trucks owners are raring to go.
“It’s a new market here in Portland, so the sky is the limit,” said Urtuzuastegui.