Mobile Vendors Day 2

I attended the second day of the Mobile Food Vending proposal.

The full text of the proposal can be downloaded here.

Even on St. Patrick’s day, the event was attended, but mostly by people with interests in the legislation. The ordinary citizen is probably busy working during the day.

At the hearing, it was explained that the the primary intent is to expand the mobile food units in the downtown and create a vibrant downtown. Since Minneapolis is a bikeable and walkable city, they are interested in providing new food opportunities that reflect that in the downtown.

This is an opportunity available to Minneapolis licensed restaurants. They have to be connected to a Minneapolis licensed facility- that is any mobile vendor must be tied to a Minneapolis kitchen. It cannot simply be a home based operation.

The fee is based upon inspections. The total inspections fee will cost $483. The start up cost for a new business is $391.

Even in a time when a new stream of revenue might be welcome, the city appears to be content with trying to charge basic fees for the service.

Locations for the mobile vending licenses will be limited to the Downtown Improvement District.

The location will be reviewed by Public Works, Business Licensing and with the DID. A specific location must be identified.

The vehicle must be removed at night. There was some discussion of the 8 foot height limitation. It was also revealed that there may be one mobile vendor per private parking lot. The mobile vendor cannot park it on dirt. It must be a paved lot. Mobile vendors cannot take over green space.

The hours of operation will be 7:00 a.m. To 12 midnight and 7:00 a.m. to 10 p.m. Within 300 feet of residential use. (It was suggested hotels do not count as residential locations).

Food preparation will be allowed within the vehicle. This expands it beyond prepackaged food.

These units will be on sidewalks, not on streets. Nevertheless, instead of opting to capture the revenue, the city appears to be creating wealth for the private property owners who may presumably buy or sell their consent to allow the mobile vendor to operate on their adjacent property.

It appears a piece of the sidewalk is being sold for use to a commercial enterprise. There is concern the provision allowing for the approval by adjacent property owners could devolve into a war by the highest bidder in which what is essentially being sold is access to the sidewalks which belong to the city itself. That is because such approval could be bought and sold.

The most troubling aspect of the bill appears to come through the approval of building owners. It appears to place the mobile vendors at the mercy of private interests even as they are attempting to utilize property (sidewalks) which lie in the public trust. It is not clear why the statute seeks to place so much emphasis on this aspect of the process when the underlying property is the sidewalk, and hence, held in public trust. It allows private owners to potentially profit and control the activities on the sidewalk.

There was some focus on the fact that it is the owners of the building, as opposed to the tenants, which must give approval. It is unlikely that a building owner will give any kind of permission which is directly adverse to their tenant, but it is not impossible.

The New York Times recently did an article on mobile vending in San Fransisco. Minneapolis officials continue to maintain they are trying to develop a “best practices” approach based on the experiences of other cities.

Another strange provision is the lack of mobility built into the statute. The vendor must pick a specific place. I would think this would make it much harder for vendors to get by. The theory is that the mobile vendors need a location to get established. Increasingly, however, mobile vendors are trying to let people know their location through social networking sites.

Some questions were raised about the impact on other events and organizations. How does this impact the farmer’s market? The farmers market leases will be okay for this year. Next year, the farmer’s market leases are expired and might come into question. Of course, food vendors can can buy their food from the farmers market to prepare their meals, so it does have some positive aspects.

Another provision governs civic events. Without permission, you cannot be within 2000 feet of any civic event. It is hard to define exactly what a civic event is, but some examples included Holidazzle, Gay Pride, or St. Patrick’s day celebrations. The assumption is that these events will grant permission provided you pay them the fees to participate in them like their other vendors.

If you saw the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, then you understand how enticing those events can be. It seems to put the mobile vendors in the strange position of being forced to opt in to all the events and thus paying all the costs or closing down for the busiest days.

At present the mobile food vendor is limited to the sale of food. The mobile food vendor is not supposed to sell t-shirts, for example.

As it is written, it is not clear if it provides enough support for mobile vendors in general. There ability to thrive seems to depend on a lot of uncertain variables. Will they be able to find a suitable location? Will the adjacent property approve their use of the sidewalk? Will the adjacent owner charge a fair and reasonable fee (if any) for the use of such property? Will the mobile vendor be able to operate during peak events (such as St. Patrick’s Day)?

Likewise, the requirement that you already have a licensed kitchen means that this opportunity is really only available to businesses that exist in Minneapolis. While a downtown satellite is an attractive option for many, a lot of truly new businesses might be excluded by such a provision.

The most troubling aspect remains the expansion of control of the public sidewalks to private property owners. It is not clear why the city would put in such a provision. It simultaneously closes public space and increases the amount of private regulation over that space while primarily benefiting private interests. I am still not sure why this provision is necessary to license mobile vendors. It seems to me, you could license them without the provision regarding adjacent owner consent.

The next meeting is a joint committee meeting in Minneapolis where people can ask questions and raise concerns. It will be on 1:30 pm at City Hall.

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