Efrem Goned’s 76 Food Mart sits across the street from North SeaTac Park, serving as a nearby stop for parkgoers to grab corn dogs or pizza after summer activities. Goned says his business survived the COVID-19 pandemic without large financial loss, but he worries the Burien convenience store will lose business if food trucks park nearby.
When Goned learned that the Burien City Council passed a pilot program in March to allow mobile vendors to operate, he eagerly joined 50 other restaurant and convenience owners who petitioned against the proposal. While food sales only account for about 5% of his store’s revenue, he is concerned for neighboring restaurants that were hit hard by the pandemic and do not have the flexibility to move.
“When [vendors] have a truck license, they have an opportunity to go wherever the people are, either to the park or to whatever busy area,” Goned said.
Following uproar from small business owners including Goned, the City Council voted to put the one-year food truck pilot program that was set to begin in late April on hold. Opposition led by Latino advocacy group Empresarios Unidos argued the proposal would injure independent establishments during a tough economic time.
To support the economic recovery of hard-hit local restaurants still operating at 50% occupancy due to the pandemic, the pilot program will begin once food establishments can return to full capacity. The City Council may amend the program rules when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
As of December, more than 110,000 establishments that serve food and drinks were temporarily or permanently closed during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 annual industry report. Moreover, the pandemic has had a disproportionate economic impact on the Latino population, 59% of whom said their households experienced pay cuts or unemployment last May, compared to the U.S. average of 43%. Empresarios Unidos said that restaurant owners, many of whom are immigrants, have struggled to survive during the pandemic and do not have additional resources to start their own food truck to compete.
“When the city says ‘Oh you can just get your own food truck and put it somewhere as well,’ it’s like, which part of ‘We’re in COVID and we don’t have no money’ don’t you get?” Empresarios Unidos President Alfredo Covarrubias said.
Meanwhile, supporters of the pilot program argue that food trucks provide economic opportunities to a diverse population of entrepreneurs. They say the program would test the benefit of food trucks and identify potential zoning areas to place mobile food vendors in Burien. It would benefit areas with a lack of healthful food, and add culinary options for residents, said Burien City Councilmember Kevin Schilling.
“As a foodie and as a millennial, I would love to see food trucks in the city of Burien,” said Schilling, who voted in favor of the program. But once Empresarios Unidos raised concerns, “I needed to take the time to reflect and understand where I wasn’t listening and to do a better job of that.”
Under the pilot program as it stands, food truck vendors who apply for authorization and secure a Burien business license would be allowed to operate on private property with owners’ approval, as well as in public parking areas, on curbs and sidewalks. Food truck vendors must ask for restaurant owners’ permission to park within 50 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Discussion around the program began in February 2020, when the Burien City Council asked the city’s Business Economic and Development Partnership — an advisory group composed of volunteers who recommend policies to the council — to study food trucks. The group’s research included a roundtable discussion with food truck industry representatives and three food service businesses, as well as review of a food truck pilot program in Puyallup, Chris Craig of the advisory group said in a March council meeting.
A year later, the group produced a report for the City Council recommending approval of the pilot program. While notifications about the group’s discussions were included on the city’s meeting calendar, Craig noted that outreach was limited.
“We had certainly challenges during COVID of really engaging folks like we would in a nonpandemic type atmosphere,” Craig said during the meeting.
In a March 15 letter to the city signed by dozens of small businesses, including immigrant business owners of diverse backgrounds, Empresarios Unidos said that food trucks posed unfair competition to restaurants due to lower overhead costs: Vendors avoid property taxes, property leases and utility and maintenance expenses, while having the ability to move locations.
As an alternative to the pilot program, the group suggested that existing restaurants be offered financial assistance to operate food trucks as an extension of their businesses.
The business owners’ worries were personal for Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta, an Empresarios Unidos member and co-founder, who said many residents called him with concerns about how the program would impact them.
“BIPOC-owned businesses historically have less access to capital and they have struggled disproportionately during this pandemic,” Matta said, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color. In response, he plans to propose that the City Council allocate a share of food truck permits to some of those businesses, and urged banking and economic development partners to extend financing to help them expand.
The industry group Washington State Food Truck Association expressed disappointment that Burien halted the pilot program. Cities including Lynnwood, Everett, Bothell and Bellingham have regulations for mobile food vending that could serve as models for Burien, said Tim Johnson, the association’s director of operations.
“The role of city government isn’t to protect one industry from having to compete in a free market against another industry,” Johnson said. “The handful of brick-and-mortar restaurant owners who are opposing food trucks are basically acknowledging that, if given a choice, their own customers would prefer food from a food truck.”
A brick-and-mortar restaurant with devoted customers need not worry about facing competition from mobile food vendors, Johnson added. Moreover, he said, mobile food vending allows entrepreneurs from all backgrounds to enter the food industry and is a source of economic growth.
According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report, food truck industry revenue in the U.S. grew from $650 million in 2014 to $2.7 billion in 2017.
At least one restaurant has had a change of heart about allowing food trucks to park nearby. Herminia Santos, owner of Mexican restaurant La Rielera, said she regretted signing the petition in opposition to the program.
“I am the one who is responsible for keeping my clients,” Santos said.
Loyal customers helped her restaurant stay afloat by ordering takeout during the pandemic. Since last year, her business received $20,000 in federal funding from the Paycheck Protection Program. But the fate of her business remains uncertain, said Santos, who is unsure if her restaurant will remain open next month.
Despite the hardships, she wishes luck to all entrepreneurs.
“If I deserve a chance, everybody deserves a chance,” Santos said.