The city council is chewing on the possibility of letting more food trucks into Hermiston.
Hermiston’s mobile vendors are currently capped at three, and the limit is pushing some businesses elsewhere.
Patrick Hunt, who operates the Southern Twain BBQ truck in Pendleton, said he would love to bring some more diversity back to Hermiston’s food truck scene (all three licenses are currently held by taco trucks) but he can’t unless the city council changes the rules.
Hunt, who lives in Hermiston, said he applied for a license at city hall a couple of years ago but was told that all of the licenses were taken. So he started his business in Pendleton instead.
“I didn’t really want to leave Hermiston, because that’s where I’m at and people know me, but I was kind of forced to,” he said.
He was one of a few people who testified in front of the city council Monday after the city opened an online survey about possible amendments to the city’s mobile food vending ordinance. To illustrate what Hermiston is missing, Hunt and his wife brought a crock pot full of pulled pork and offered up sandwiches and sliders downstairs after the meeting to anyone who wanted a sample.
City planner Clint Spencer told the city council that so far 625 people who have taken the online survey, which closes July 15, said they were in favor of the city increasing the number of mobile vendor licenses from its current cap, while 110 people said the cap should stay the same.
The ordinance, passed in 2013, placed a cap on its $500-per-year licenses and set in place design and safety standards. It also stated that trucks must be at least 400 feet from other restaurants and in the city’s outlying commercial zone, which does not include downtown. Trucks must move every night, can only operate until 10 p.m. and cannot provide seating.
About 89 percent of respondents to the survey so far have said that the city should allow food trucks downtown. Similar numbers supported temporary licenses for mobile vendors and the creation of a “pod” where multiple food trucks could park. About 80 percent of respondents supported an amendment that would allow small carts that can be pushed by hand in addition to the current large trucks.
On Monday Jose Garcia, chair of the Hispanic Advisory Committee, said he knew of another woman who, like Hunt, had applied for a license and was told there were none available. So she packed up her family and moved to Pasco to start a taco truck there.
Among the city’s three current mobile vendors, opinions are mixed on possible updates to the rules.
Rigo Garcia drives his taco truck down from Pasco and parks across the street from the Hermiston post office every morning, firing up the grill in time to open by 10 a.m. Customers park in the public lot there and order up tacos, carne asada, torta and more to eat in their cars or sitting on their tailgates.
Garcia is grateful to have the opportunity to operate in Hermiston, but he said some of the city’s rules for mobile food vendors make it difficult. He wishes he could provide seating, for example, and that he didn’t have to drive his truck back up to Pasco every night.
“I don’t understand why they say I have to move,” he said.
Garcia said people may have pushed for an ordinance because there is a stereotype that food trucks are dirty and unsafe, but he buys high-quality ingredients and follows the same food-handling guidelines as restaurants.
“Some people think the taco trucks are dirty, but I’m very clean, personally,” he said. “I cook fresh meat every day. I clean the grill every day. I love my customers.”
Tacos Paricutin, often parked behind Cottage Flowers, is one of the trucks that chose to remain open after the 2013 regulations were put in place. Maricela Medrano, serving up tacos to customers last week, said her parents have run the business for 24 years and didn’t have an issue applying for a license and complying with city regulations.
They hadn’t had to make many changes, and hadn’t been interested in providing seating anyway.
“Everything’s good,” she said, shrugging.
Tacos Xavi owners Gabriela Rodriguez and Luis Diaz also chose to stick around after the new regulations were put in place.
Rodriguez said they had to make some adjustments, but they had decided it was worth it to do what they needed to continue operating in Hermiston.
“We live from that,” she said of the business. “It’s our income.”
They have operated since 2010, first as a trailer on Main Street and then as a truck behind Payless Shoes. Diaz said they have grown during that time, adding employees and menu items. They had looked into setting up a sit-down restaurant, he said, but their customers tend to be people who have 30 minutes for lunch and are looking to grab something quickly and be on their way. A food truck is more conducive to that.
“People want their food fast,” he said.
During Monday’s city council meeting councilor John Kirwan, who was on the committee that wrote the ordinance along with Manuel Gutierrez and then-councilor George Anderson, said that while the city is considering changes to the ordinance they needed to remember it was adopted in the first place because there had been issues with mobile vendors. Many of them were “mobile” in name only and spread out to become eyesores, he said. There were problems with how people were disposing of their wastewater, and customers of the food trucks were loitering and then using the bathrooms of nearby businesses.
“There still needs to be some regulations,” he said.
Mayor David Drotzmann told Hunt and others who testified in favor of changing the rules that the council did understand that they may be too strict and was open to the idea of making some changes.
“Sometimes the pendulum swings too far,” he said.
After the online survey at hermiston.or.us closes on Sunday, city staff plan to bring back recommendations for a city council vote on possible amendments to its mobile food vending ordinance.