Food Trucks Need Room to Roll

Misfortune blazed a path to redemption last weekend, but there’s more that can be done. Eugene Mission executive director Jack Tripp didn’t say that, but he could have. His organization is well on its way to replacing its burned-out kitchen, thanks to a very successful fundraiser.

Twenty-eight food trucks convened in the Valley River Center parking lot last Saturday for a Food Truck Fest. Once word got out that ten percent of all proceeds would be donated to Eugene Mission’s sudden need, the event drew an overwhelming response.

Eugene loves its food trucks, in spite of the city’s public policy. If you wonder what’s so bad about Eugene’s food truck policy, it’s that it doesn’t have one. Eugene has an ice cream truck policy, reminiscent of the 1960s’ Good Humor man. Food trucks are not allowed to park or stop on Eugene’s public roads for more than a few minutes at a time.

Eugene city staff convened a meeting with food truck advocates to explore how policies could be updated to support this burgeoning business sector, but no changes have yet been made. That meeting was almost three years ago.

Food truckers are nothing if not adaptive, so they’ve learned to make do. They pull their vehicles off public property and into private lots. Property owners usually charge modest rents to the truck operators.

Once they find a spot that works for them, they tend to keep to a regular schedule, hoping to build a loyal following of repeat customers. The wheels under their trucks hardly matter. They guard their space, even if it’s only the pavement beneath them. They pay rent.

There’s nothing wrong with the current configuration and hardly anyone is complaining. But it could be much better. Here’s how.

Food trucks should be allowed to park just like any other car or truck, so long as it doesn’t endanger their customers or other motorists. Springfield has already begun loosening its rules, but Eugene can do more. Only then will the inventive spirit of these creative entrepreneurs be fully revealed.

If we can restripe Willamette Street to see how drivers adapt, we can allow our roving restaurants to rove. At the very least, it’s another experiment worth trying.

Anyone with a kitchen that needs a good cleaning can tell you that cooking and creativity go naturally together. Most restaurant chefs are constantly tinkering, but often it’s only their family or their closing-time employees who experience those experiments.

Our street food would become more inventive if we allowed our chefs to use our streets.

Cafe Yumm’s signature sauce was a concoction that Mary Anne Beauchamp made for her own lunch when she had a small cafe inside Friendly Street Market. The original owner of Pegasus Pizza told me he developed a good barbecue chicken pizza after Dumpster-diving around campus and finding mostly pizza boxes and chicken bones. Where but in Eugene could two brothers build a small empire on their love of waffles?

What crazy ideas would be suddenly worth trying if its creator’s incremental investment was the cost of plugging a parking meter? All the risk would go into the recipes. Failure would be no big deal. Try again tomorrow on another street corner.

Every day would bring us new choices in new places. Think of it as the opposite of a road diet.

Imagine a Wavy Gravy comfort food truck parked outside the MacDonald Theatre after a Grateful Dead tribute band concert. Or a truck selling green and yellow shaved ice after a Duck game. Or a pizza truck outside an Oregon Bach Festival tribute to Italian influences. If we allow it, they will concoct it.

Isn’t this the sort of risk-taking Eugene wants to encourage?

In four hours, 28 food trucks attracted approximately 13 thousand people, raising $45,000 for the Eugene Mission. Redemption stories always focus on new beginnings.

Loosen the city’s parking rules for food trucks, so we can watch Eugene’s love affair with its food trucks take us to surprising — and delicious — places. What creativity is cooking in Eugene, if only we took the lid off?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.