Houston City Council Member Calls Propane Food Trucks a “Bomb Threat”

In Houston, food trucks that use propane (the industry standard) can’t sell downtown, thereby losing many potential customers. But at a recent city council meeting, Houston Council Member Andrew Burks, Jr. denounced food trucks with propane tanks as a “bomb threat.” Seriously.

Burks explains that an attack on these propane tanks would be “catastrophic:”

“Because, reason is that in these times, when people can bomb an embassy, attack an embassy, all sorts of things going on, we put this type of bomb threat right in front of us and we know it could be a problem.”

When food truck owner Sarah Troxell asked “I’m not sure how that relates to food trucks,” Burks cut her off and continued to invoke the recent attacks on U.S. embassies in Cairo and Benghazi.

As the Houston Press notes, “there are dozens of propane tanks stacked in front of grocery stores throughout the city, as well as propane tanks currently on downtown restaurant patios (and restaurant patios all over Houston).”

Unfortunately, the propane ban isn’t the only silly regulation that’s slamming the brakes on Houston street food. Food trucks can only operate within 500 feet of a flushable toilet. In addition, culinary entrepreneurs can’t park near picnic tables. On top of that, mobile vendors are banned from selling within 60 feet from one another. So no street food festivals. Violate any part of these street food regulations and you could face a fine of anywhere from $50 to $2,000 a day.

Before they can sell, mobile food entrepreneurs need to procure a $560 “medallion,” a pricey permission slip from the government. Vendors who use propane need to pay $180 for a gas permit, while food trucks that cook on-site also need to pay over $230 for “electronic monitoring.” So an entrepreneur who wants to cook on-site in a food truck will need to fork over $900 in fees, all before she’s even served one customer.

In addition, some restrictions can be very hard to find. Joe Phillips, who runs Oh My! Pocket Pies says he found out about these rules through “trial and error”:

"It's not clear black and white anywhere you look up the regulations and rules, so you have to find out on your own. And that's how we did, it was trial and error. We found out about these rules and regulations by actually being a food truck operator/owner ourselves and finding out that we're not allowed in certain places, we can't do certain things, we can't be at certain locations. So after that, it's like pulling an onion apart layer by layer, finding more and more things that made it so difficult to operate."

Fed up with these restrictions, many food truck owners have formed the Mobile Food Unit Collective to advocate for reform. They’ve even proposed a new ordinance that would eliminate the ban on propane trucks downtown and would allow vendors to sell near each other and provide their own tables and chairs.

In a press release, Phillips noted how street food freedom would boost economic growth: “Approving changes to support mobile food units will directly contribute to the success of local, small businesses, and will allow them to grow, strengthening our city’s economy.”

Unfortunately, food trucks are not the only victims of overregulation in H-Town. Houston requires a permit to share food with the homeless. Refuse and you could pay a fine of up to $500. IJ attorney Wesley Hottot further delved into Houston’s backwards bureaucracy in his report, Houston, We Have a Problem: Space City Regulations Prevent Entrepreneurs from Taking Off.

-- Nick Sibilla

Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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