A Modest Food Truck Proposal

Food Trucks are in the news again. According to the Baltimore Sun, there is legislation under consideration by a city council committee to place new regulations/restrictions on the mobile vending industry that has continued to thrive in Charm City these last five years.

We might tell you a bit more about what’s in the legislation and even offer an opinion or two about it, except that we really have no idea what’s in the bill. Whatever it is, any part of it may be cut before it comes out of committee, and rules and provisions are likely to be added willy-nilly until the new rules governing food trucks are as slapdash and nonsensical as the current rules governing food trucks, which were the direct result of the Mayor caving into a yuppie uproar (#Yuproar) and granting food trucks carte blanche to operate wherever and whenever they please which unfortunately doesn’t seem to include late nights.

Nobody in City Hall seems to know what to do with what is by now a very large fleet of trucks. The trucks themselves don’t really know what they’re doing either, and aside from their popular Gathering events operate on a permanent basis of trial and error trying to survive an unusually harsh winter. Fortunately the Chop knows exactly what we should do with them.

In what is but shouldn’t be an unrelated story the Sun opined last year on the imminent $25M badly needed renovation of Lexington Market, saying basically that the market and the blocks around it need a (ahem) more varied clientele if the place is going to survive. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the food trucks and the Market should go together like shrimp and grits.

There exists currently a parking lot just south of the market’s main building at Lexington and Eutaw streets, shown above. It’s our opinion that a few hundred thousand in renovation funds should be set aside to transform this lot into a food truck court where operators could lease space on a semi-permanent basis. The space is easily big enough to hold roughly a dozen trucks on the third of it nearest to the market. The other 2/3 should be given over to a public garden space featuring trees and shrubs which could insulate it a bit from the harsh visual landscape to the south. Such a garden could be completed by picnic tables for use in fine weather. Even without the trucks, some liveable outdoor space akin to Center Plaza is very much necessary at the market, which abuts the street directly and features only indoor common spaces.

Such dedicated food truck spaces have worked well in other cities like Austin, Houston, LA and Atlanta, and it’s not difficult to see why. For the customer it’s a better experience from top to bottom, being able to order away from the street and out of traffic and having a place to sit and enjoy a meal rather than standing on a corner. Customers also get the benefit of knowing where to find trucks without frantically checking social media as well as the option to mix and match items from different trucks easily.

Truck corrals can be a boon for truck operators as well. Lexington Market is perfect, location wise, being walkable from all downtown offices and directly accessible by subway and light rail. Operators who lease spaces have no need of worrying about running afoul of brick-and-mortar restaurant owners and don’t need to waste time and energy circling blocks hours before lunchtime hawking their preferred parking spaces. Baltimore’s trucks have already demonstrated that they cooperate very well together, and being under the aegis of the market would benefit them further by allowing them to do things like easily dispose of garbage or rent additional storage or refrigeration space.

Additionally, the trucks would have proximity to the indoor table space at the market, making it feasible for customers to patronize them year-round and not only on sunny days in the warmer months. That space inside the market is already home to entertainment programming like live music, and we can’t help but think that with the cachet and connections of the food truck community paired to a shiny new renovation, that the market might begin to attract a more interesting slate of musicians than they currently bill, which would in turn lead to more people choosing it as a lunchtime destination. How would you rather spend your lunch hour, eat a Chipotle burrito with a bunch of tourists or grab a Kooper’s burger and see Caleb Stine play at the same time? Placing a food truck lot at the end of a pedestrianized Lexington Street with a renovated Superblock would certainly generate some more of what Sun columnist Dan Rodricks referred to last fall as ‘bag people,’ a downtown resource that’s in short supply currently.

Of course the trucks get the best of both worlds in the bargain because they are, after all, still mobile. The market’s location is central, and only minutes away from the arena and stadiums, etc. Whenever a particular operator wanted to feed people in a different location for a special event it would be as simple as turning on the engine and going.

If the city really wanted to get its act together for 100 trucks, as the Sun quoted one city official saying, then we’d like to see the market/truck corral concept expanded to other public markets, notably Northeast Market which draws from both the large staff at Hopkins and the local neighborhood, and Broadway Market, which is in dire need of any kind of revitalization it can get. Other key locations include the unit block of West Oliver St across from Penn Station, the empty lot at Key Hwy and Fort Ave, the under-utilized Memorial Stadium site, and the vacant lot in Remington at 27th and Keswick. An additional, seasonal area should be established on Camden Street during Orioles home games, when the street is closed to traffic anyway.

Done right, food truck policy will benefit the trucks, the city, and the citizens. We wish we could trust the Rawlings-Blake administration to be more forward thinking and imaginative than to slap up a few street signs and dream up some convoluted lottery process. Unfortunately, we can’t.

(Feature image via Google Earth)