What We Talk About When We Talk About Seattle Street Food


(Photo: MvB)

Ice cream truck show of force (Photo: MvB)

It's not that Seattle doesn't know that there's strength in numbers. Here's the hopping Ballard Market. (Photo: MvB)

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Sightline’s Eric Hess has a research article on street food (UDATE: and a follow-up post) that puts into stark contrast the divide between Portland’s food truck scene and Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. It’s no surprise that Portland is the food cart champion, with twelve carts per 10,000 residents, but the gap between first and the also-rans is striking: Seattle and Vancouver have just two carts per 10,000.

The street food gap is in part a historical hangover, notes Hess:

For decades, Seattle and Vancouver, BC, had draconian laws limiting food cart cuisine. In the last few years, however, both have tossed old rules in the dumpster, hoping to unleash legions of carts.

The troubling thing is, if you’re street-food positive, Seattle isn’t gaining on Portland at all. This despite the fact that in July 2011 the city council passed new “pro-street food regulations. Hess has looked into the data, and found that “the number of food cart permits actually dropped a bit since the new regulations took effect.”

Oops. It’s still early, of course, but it’s safe to say the “relaxed” regulations haven’t sparked a food-truck rush. One reason may be the city’s controversial rule that treats food trucks a bit like smokers: Food carts can’t set up within 50 feet of an existing restaurant’s front doors without getting permission. (More unusually, a popular taco truck at 23rd Avenue and Cherry was, it’s rumored, run off after being “harassed by some men for ‘protection money‘.”)

As Hess mentioned in a comment on a related Publicola story, getting permission isn’t the end of it: “Interestingly, that’s actually causing problems for hot dog carts who have the blessing of neighboring bars: now, if a cart wants to be outside a bar, the bar-owner must be the one to obtain the permit, and both bar and cart have to carry insurance to cover the cart.”

Plus, one area of seems to be hogging much of the street food action. Publicola’s Erica Barnett dug further, and found that “all eight of food trucks that have been licensed since the new rules passed are between Pioneer Square and South Lake Union, and most operate just three or four hours a day.”

One clear difference between Portland and Seattle’s street food scenes is the more communal nature of Portland’s street food pods, where, leasing private space, seven or eight street food vendors might set up semi-permanently in a street food caravan. This way, they create street food destinations in neighborhoods throughout Portland. (It’s the same principle that’s activated the Madison & 12th Avenue area, for instance, where Lark, Canon, Cafe Presse, and Stumptown have clustered together.) So far, Seattle’s mobile food rodeos have demonstrated a similar strength-in-numbers popularity. (Look for the spring edition Sunday, May 6, in Fremont.)

Hess also notes that Portland has adopted a more laissez-faire attitude toward the carts, while Seattle’s inspectors appear eager to hound vendors until they get it right.

For non-foodies, there remains the question of whether to care about any of this, and for that, we direct you to Seattle Transit Blog, whose growing discussion (“Seattle Food Trucks Underwhelming,” “On Food Trucks as a Reasonable Compromise“) turns on street food’s contribution to walkable urbanism. Matt Gangemi argues that when it comes to long, dead blocks, street food is a great way to give people a reason to venture out to the sidewalk. But Portland’s example illustrates that almost any undeveloped neighborhood spot–paved, unpaved–works as well, if you can bring critical street food mass. And maybe tents, for when it rains.