ST. PETERSBURG — Food trucks may abound in Tampa but they have yet to become part of St. Petersburg’s culinary DNA.
Officials estimate only a handful of trucks operate regularly in the city, partly the result of cumbersome regulations including a ban on trucks in the city’s vibrant downtown except for special events.
Anxious not to miss out on the food-truck movement, officials have toiled for two years trying to draw up new rules that juggle the wishes of truck owners while recognizing the concerns of restaurants along Beach Drive and elsewhere downtown.
“We let ourselves get tangled up in the weeds,” said City Council member Karl Nurse. “We take a relatively simple thing and complicate it until we beat it to death.”
Now officials believe they are close to a breakthrough that will open up the city to food trucks while preserving the upscale dining environment of places like Beach Drive.
New regulations drafted by the city will allow trucks to operate on public rights of way and private property throughout most of the city. Trucks would not be permitted to operate in an area east of First Street North and First Street South that includes Beach Drive, nor around the heart of the city’s bar and restaurant area along Central Avenue, east of Fifth Street.
In most downtown areas, trucks also would be restricted to private property, an attempt to encourage partnerships with businesses.
“This was the best way to get the food trucks into the downtown center but not create an immediate conflict with restaurants,” said Derek Kilborn, a city planner who oversees urban and historic areas.
The proposed ordinance, which must be approved by city council, also would simplify obtaining permits for food trucks. Business owners who work in St. Petersburg do so either with a temporary permit for special events or by obtaining a “peddler’s permit” from the city’s police department, which was designed primarily for ice-cream trucks.
The new rules instead would establish an annual “mobile food establishment permit,” sparing business owners the headache of reapplying for temporary permits.
Trucks that use private property would be limited to two days a week in those spots. A public toilet must be available within 150 feet of the truck if it operates in a single spot for more than three hours a day.
Maggie Loflin has run Maggie on the Move, a food truck specializing in Mediterranean fusion food, for more than two years. She said she welcomes the new rules.
She tried for two years to get former Mayor Bill Foster to change city rules regarding food trucks. Her frustration led her to form the Gulf to Bay Food Truck Association, a coalition of food-truck owners in the Tampa Bay area.
A chance encounter with current Mayor Rick Kriseman at the city’s farmer’s market led to a meeting with him, which she says helped raise the priority of the matter.
“I think Kriseman sees the value of having the food trucks,” she said. “Food-truck culture is growing all over the country and we’re not going anywhere.”
Loflin said the growth of food trucks in the city will dovetail with the boom in craft breweries, many of which do not serve food. Trucks are also perfect for the city’s growing number of farmer’s markets, she said.
Encouraging the growth of the on-the-go kitchens is not just about giving residents more dining options. Some chefs who started food-truck businesses have gone on to open restaurants such as Los Angeles chef Roy Choi, who owns Kogi BBQ.
“It’s important that we are able to provide opportunities for people to have startup businesses like food trucks that may turn into bricks and mortar restaurants,” said Councilwoman Amy Foster.