Micheline Maynard is journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She most recently led Changing Gears, a public radio project exploring the reinvention of the industrial Midwest, and was previously Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times.
Tough permit rules, location regulations, and rigorous inspections make the city so known for its food one of the least hospitable to food trucks in the country.
From roast beef stuffed po’boys to crawfish etouffee, house made gelato to meats cured on site, New Orleans boasts a glorious food scene that has thrived since Hurricane Katrina. But look around the French Quarter, or on the streets of downtown, and there’s something missing: food trucks.
At a time when mobile kitchens are flourishing in so many parts of the country, prospective New Orleans food truck owners face a variety of restrictions that keep them from fanning out across the Crescent City.
New Orleans isn’t alone: Chicago’s few dozen food truck operators have been battling for years with restaurant owners, who want to keep the trucks from being able to cook on the spot, and thus limit their menus and appeal. Lately, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, food trucks contend police are tracking them down via social media and issuing tickets they say are meant to scare them off the streets.
In New Orleans, the presence of food trucks was invaluable in the months after Katrina, when they popped up to feed clean-up crews and construction workers who couldn’t leave their sites to dine out at the few reopened restaurants. But as chefs and staff returned to the city, the effort to expand food trucks stalled, in large part because of strict limits on their number and how they can operate.
The city classifies food trucks as mobile vendors, putting them in the same category as souvenir sellers. Only 100 permits are available at any given time, meaning a new truck owner has to wait until an existing one is turned in. A permit costs about $300 and must be renewed each year.
The application is just the start. In order to cook on a truck, the city requires a health department inspection and a fire inspection, and trucks must make any needed modifications before they can open.
But then comes the biggest conundrum: where to go. Trucks cannot operate in the French Quarter or the Central Business District, keeping them away from millions of tourists who visit annually, not to mention office workers who are less inclined to seek a sit-down meal.
New Orleans food trucks can only stop in one place for 30 minutes at a time, and can only visit the same spot once in a 24-hour period. Food trucks can’t sell dishes made from seafood, a big roadblock in a place known for its tasty shrimp, crawfish and Gulf-caught fish. Trucks also can’t set up within 600 feet of a school, cafeteria or restaurant.
In other words, if you have an after-work hankering for fish tacos and figure you can saunter down to that truck you spotted a while back out your office window, you are probably out of luck.
Still, truck owners are persevering. Rachel Billow, the owner of La Cocinita, a truck serving Latin American cuisine, leads the fledgling New Orleans Food Truck Coalition. The non-profit group is pushing to streamline regulations and eliminate some of the restrictions.
Last September, a gathering of the city’s food trucks at the New Orleans fairgrounds attracted 1,500 people who paid admission on top of the price of food, evidence to Billow that New Orleans wants food trucks. "There are people who’ve visited us from Portland and San Francisco, and say, ‘where are the rest of the food trucks?’" Billow says. "What it comes down to is the permitting."
A spokesman for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said 22 permits have been made available this year. Mobile vending licenses will be part of Landrieu's efforts to streamline the city's permit process, Ryan F. Berni, the mayor's press secretary, said via email. A one-stop, online permit process is scheduled to begin late this summer.
Any broader changes to New Orleans' vendor regulations would have to be approved by the city council, Berni said.
Billow, who's invested about $50,000 in her used food truck, says she spent another $15,000 to bring it up to New Orleans’ code, even though it already met Florida standards.
Banned from downtown, trucks are instead plying some of the city’s fastest growing areas uptown, such as Freret Street and Oak Street. They also can be spotted along stretches of Magazine Street, which runs from there to the business district.
Billow, who waited tables at the tony Commander’s Palace restaurant, often sets up on Magazine outside the Rendezvous Tavern, the after-work hangout for the restaurant’s staff.
La Cocinita was hatched one night when the Commander’s group bemoaned the city’s dearth of late-night food. Many restaurants close surprisingly early, given that drinks can be served until the wee hours. “There’s all these people out drinking until all hours of the morning, but there’s no food,” Billow says.
Sympathetic establishments can be a food truck’s protectors. That’s the case for Brigade Coffee, which began selling its own roast coffee and beverages on bustling Freret Street last month.
Brigade, which operates from a vintage open air Citroen H Van imported from Belgium, found a host in Company Burger, which lets the coffee crew use its parking lot or keeps watch as it parks on a nearby side street.
"We were very interested in this street,” says Brigade co-founder Andy Anderson, which led them to Company Burger owner Adam Biderman. Biderman's menu is limited to burgers, a full bar and killer brownies, but it turned out he's also an avowed coffee lover.
“I believe in the aesthetics and philosophy of what Brigade is doing,” Biderman says. “It’s a facet of our culture that isn’t represented here.”
Brigade has it slightly easier than other food trucks because it operates under a less-restrictive catering license, an option for businesses that aren’t cooking on their trucks. So, it hasn’t had to undergo the scrutiny or expense of a kitchen on wheels. Moreover, the quirky truck quickly caught the eye of movie crews, landing an invitation to serve on the set of the new Seth Rogen film, “End of the World,” which has been filming in New Orleans.
Its owners envision an entire brigade of Brigade Coffee trucks, hoping to spread out across the city and bring high quality coffee to spots where shops haven’t opened. But, as New Orleans learned in its recovery from the storm, change can come awfully slowly here.
"This is one of the greatest food towns in the country, and we should be open to different things," says Biderman, sounding clearly frustrated. "There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be food trucks running all over town."