The Secret to a Flourishing Food Truck and Street Food Culture

Simple Municipal Codes will Help Put a Taco Truck on Every Corner

The food truck revolution has taken the world by storm, but it’s in cities like Austin that the culture truly thrives. It is widely recognized for it’s rich and diverse street food scenes and many food truck parks. But what sets them apart? What's the secret sauce that makes their street food culture buzz with energy and flavor? Let’s dive in.

In many urban areas, food trucks congregate in dedicated areas known as "food truck parks." This allows for variety in a single location, creating a hub of culinary exploration. This not only creates more foot traffic for the vendors but also offers customers a plethora of options, turning a quick bite into a social event.

Let’s take a closer look at the municipal codes and compare why food trucks work in one city vs another, in this case Austin, TX vs Round Rock, TX (a nearby suburb north of Austin). Austin has been at the forefront of the food truck movement, with its welcoming regulations and passionate foodie culture. Let’s look at a snippet of Austin's Food Truck Rules (Title 25 - Land Development, Chapter 25-2 - Zoning, Subchapter C - Use of Development Regulation, Article 4 - Additional Requirements for Certain Uses, Division 2 - Commercial Uses, § 25-2-812 - MOBILE FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS.)

A mobile food establishment:

(1) must be licensed by the health authority;

(2) is permitted in all commercial and industrial zoning districts, except in a neighborhood office (NO), limited office (LO), or general office (GO) zoning district;

(3) may not be located within 50 feet of a lot with a building that contains both a residential and commercial use;

(4) may not operate between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.; and

(5) may not be located within 20 feet of a restaurant (general) or restaurant (limited) use.

That’s it that’s the entire municipal code for food trucks. Having by right rules in commercial and industrial zoning is incredibly relaxed compared to most other cities in the US. Also note there is no limit on the total number of food trucks per property, nor is there any provision that a food truck be temporary only. These are key and allow for food trucks to be semi-permanently placed at bars, beer gardens, food truck parks, auto shops, and even apartment buildings (as long as they are 50 feet away from a residential building, this is for better clean air).

This is what makes Austin’s food truck culture so distinct. In additional Austin has removed parking requirements in most of the city, meaning even more properties can now host food truck parks. Now, compare this with a few snippets from Round Rock's Food Truck Rules, (Code of Ordinances: Chapter 18, Sec. 18-2.). The complete code is far too long to post in it’s entirety.

(c) Mobile food establishments.

(1) General. A mobile food establishment is a temporary food service operation that supports certain types of businesses in certain locations in the City.

(2) Site location criteria.

a. Mobile food establishments shall not locate on public streets or in public parking lots, but may locate in an unimproved alley of a property zoned MU-1.

b. Mobile food establishments shall not be located within 50 feet of a single-family dwelling unit. This measurement shall be taken from the property line of the dwelling unit to the closest point of the mobile food establishment location.

c. Mobile food establishments shall not locate in access drives, fire lanes, or improved alleys.

d. Mobile food establishments shall not locate on sidewalks in or along the right-of-way without prior approval from the city. Approval may be granted if a minimum width of five (5) feet of sidewalk remains free of any obstructions.

e. Mobile food establishments may not occupy any parking spaces needed for the minimum required parking for the primary use.

f. Mobile food establishments shall be located a minimum of 15 feet from fire hydrants and five (5) feet from any utility box, ADA accessibility ramp, or building entrance.

(3) Other requirements.

a. The mobile food establishment shall be in compliance with Williamson County and Cities Health District regulations and applicable City fire department regulations.

g. The mobile food establishment shall remain on wheels and drivable or with the hitch in place necessary for it to be mobile.

(4) Long-term accessory use.

a. Mobile food establishments are meant to be open and on-site on a temporary basis. As such, the following requirements for long-term accessory use shall be met:

1. New connections to city water or wastewater infrastructure are prohibited;

2. New electric meters are prohibited; and

3. For mobile food establishments serving a municipal parks and recreation facility, the Parks and Recreation Department shall determine the permissible duration for which each establishment may operate.

b. Upon the issuance of an annual permit as described in subsection (c)(4)c. below, mobile food establishments are permitted as long-term accessory use supporting the following primary uses:

1. Eating and drinking establishments located on lots zoned MU-1 or a PUD which abuts a MU-1 or MU-2 zoned parcel;

2. A multi-tenant center where the mobile food establishment is located within an internally oriented pedestrian promenade which is not visible from the public right-of-way;

3. Small-scale alcohol production facilities;

4. Event centers;

5. Municipal parks and recreation facilities;

6. Public and private education facilities, corporate office campuses, and business/industrial parks, at which the mobile food establishment provides service to the students or employees of the hosting organization; and

7. Homeowners Association-owned common areas.

c. An annual permit from the city for each calendar year beginning January 1 shall be required for long term accessory use.

1. The property owner or tenant who is hosting the mobile food establishment shall be responsible for obtaining the permit.

4. A site map showing the proposed location of the mobile food establishment(s) shall be provided.

5. Applications for mobile food establishment permits shall be accompanied by the appropriate fee as set forth in appendix A of the Code of Ordinances. Municipal parks and recreation facilities and homeowner association properties shall be exempt from fees.

6. The mobile food establishment shall not operate during the hours that the primary use is closed.

7. It shall be unlawful for the owner of a mobile food establishment which is visible from public rights-of-way to park the vehicle overnight at the location of their associated primary use on any Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday night, except for Sunday and Thursday nights that coincide with a federal holiday the following day.

(5) Mobile food establishment park.

7. Signage and identification for individual mobile food establishments within the park shall be on or attached to the vehicle. Menu items may be displayed on sandwich boards which are not attached to the vehicle. Mobile food establishment parks may install one (1) on-site post and panel sign within the park area that meets the size, height, materials and illumination standards provided in section 8-78(j). This sign shall meet applicable location requirements for freestanding signs in accordance with section 8-78(d). If a freestanding post and panel sign will be added to the park, a separate sign permit with associated fee shall be required.

(6) Short-term accessory use.

a. Upon issuance of a three-day permit as described in subsection (c)(6)b. below, mobile food establishments are permitted as an accessory use supporting the following uses:

1. Property located within a Commercial Zoning District, which contains an operational business;

2. Property located within an Employment and Industrial Zoning District which contains an operational business;

3. Small-scale alcohol production facilities;

4. Event centers;

5. Community/government service facilities/places of worship;

6. Municipal parks and recreation facilities;

7. Homeowner Association-owned common areas; and

8. Public and private education facilities, corporate office campuses, and business/industrial parks, at which the mobile food establishment provides services to the students or employees of the hosting organization.

b. A three-day permit shall be required for short-term accessory use.

1. Each event shall be for a maximum of three (3) consecutive days.

2. A maximum of four (4) permits within each calendar year shall be used for each property.

3. The property owner or tenant who is hosting the event shall be responsible for obtaining the permit. If a tenant applies for the permit, the signature of the property owner or property management company must be on the application.

4. The permit applicant shall attest that all mobile food establishments hosted on-site have the required Williamson County and Cities Health District and Round Rock Fire Department permits and inspections and are in compliance with all applicable regulations. Mobile food establishments may be shut down immediately by the Williamson County and Cities Health District or the Fire Department if they are in violation of any permitting or inspection requirements, including displaying the proper permits.

5.The zoning administrator may limit permits issued under this section if the permit holder is found to be in violation of section (4) above three (3) times in a twelve (12) month period. The permit shall remain revoked for twelve (12) months from the date of revocation.

6. Applications for mobile food establishment permits shall be accompanied by the appropriate fee as set forth in appendix A the Code of Ordinances. Municipal parks and recreation facilities and homeowner association properties shall be exempt from the fees.

The key items to focus on are the requirement that a food truck be temporary, as in they must be moved regularly (think a food truck at a construction site or at an office only for lunchtime service). It cannot be hooked up to local utilities, the property owner is responsible for obtaining the permit for operation (not the tuck owner) and each property is limited in the number of trucks in operation per lot. The code for Round Rock, with a population of 123K people, is more than ten times the length of the city of Austin code with a population of 964K people. Simplicity and ease of permitting is key to allowing small businesses to thrive.

Allowing food trucks to be semi-permanent and connect to local utilities can drastically cut down on emissions and pollution. For instance, when trucks can plug into electricity, they don’t need to run noisy and polluting generators. This not only aids in a more eco-friendly approach but also enhances the overall dining experience for patrons.

Emulating the successes of Austin in cultivating a vibrant food truck culture requires a mix of flexible regulations that leans most heavily on safe and clean food preparation and not very concerned with the nit picking of other less important elements like location and signage. Also keeping in mind sustainability, and an understanding of the needs of both vendors, patrons, and land owners. As cities in the US and worldwide seek to enhance their culinary landscapes and provide unique experiences for their residents and visitors alike, they would do well to consider these elements, ensuring a win-win for everyone involved.

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