Quinlivan proposes three city-owned food truck locations in downtown Cincinnati

Photo by Bob Schwartz

Since UrbanCincy first covered the news of Cincinnati’s first food truck (Cafe de Wheels) in December, Senor Roy’s Taco Patrol has started operations and been wildly popular. Meanwhile, Taco Azul is poised to start its authentic Mexican food truck operations later this summer, and Gold Star Chili has announced the formal creation of their ‘Chilimobile’ that will serve Cincinnati-style chili throughout downtown and at other special events. The early success of these mobile food mavens should not come as a surprise given the popularity of food trucks nationally.

Policy makers at City Hall are now catching on and looking to help address the issues currently facing mobile food trucks as it relates to where they can and can not set up operations. Cincinnati City Council member Laure Quinlivan has proposed three city-owned “mobile food vendor” locations in downtown Cincinnati that would provide available spaces for these food trucks on downtown Cincinnati’s crowded streets.

“I want to increase the vitality of our street life and spread activity from Fountain Square to other parts of downtown,” Quinlivan stated in a press release sent to UrbanCincy. “I think giving mobile food vendors a few key areas to do business will help accomplish that. This is also an avenue for talented chefs to start a small business.”

The ability for aspiring chefs to take their product to the street allows them to avoid the costly overhead of an actual location where they are paying utilities and a lease for 24 hours of operation. At the same time, the small business owners are unable to move about to find their best customer base. Customers, on the other hand, love the laid back approach and flexibility of food trucks to be where the action is.

Since December, Cafe de Wheels has been found in downtown Cincinnati for the lunch crowd, Over-the-Rhine for Final Friday and other events, Northside for the after-hours crowd, and at special gatherings like WatchThis and other parties. Senor Roys, meanwhile, can pretty much be found everywhere and anywhere – you need to keep a close watch to their Twitter account to stay up-to-speed. And when Taco Azul starts its operations you can expect a more steady location pattern for lunch and special events.

Photo by Thadd Fiala

The problem thus far has not been too much oversight by City Hall on the topic of mobile food trucks, but rather, the lack of any real discussion whatsoever. This has left food truck operators to fend for themselves with vague public policy and inconsistent agreements with private property owners.

Quinlivan’s proposed pilot program has been reviewed by City administrators from six different City departments, and will be discussed at City Council’s Quality of Life Committee meeting Tuesday, June 8 at 12pm at City Hall (map). Quinlivan has the hopes to pass the legislation before City Council goes on summer recess.  Free bicycle parking is available, and City Hall is served by Metro bus service (plan your trip).

Cafe de Wheels’ owner Thomas Acito is scheduled to speak at the committee meeting on behalf of the Cincinnati Food Truck Alliance.

Stay up-to-date on all of Cincinnati’s mobile food operations by following UrbanCincy’s comprehensive Twitter list.

  • Mike

    While this may make sense given a vague policy it pretty much eliminates that point of having a mobile enterprise.

    Let the food trucks roll.

  • ugh, I wish they would just stick to health/tax related issues on these guys. Do you know if she wants to restrict or just guarantee locations? If it’s a guarantee, what happens when the number of trucks triples?
    FWIW, Cafe du Wheels was spotted at the Northside Farmers Market Wednesday afternoon. It makes sense for these guys to do the afternoon neighborhood Farmers Market circuit after lunch downtown. The advantage of mobile food! But, this is why I worry about council getting involved. They could screw up the spontaneity aspect really easily.

  • Bryon Martin

    Kudos to Councilwoman Quinlivan for spearheading this. I whole heartedly support the food trucks and the attached entrepreneurial spirit, but there do need to be regulations in place to protect the interest of other local businesses. For example, it is not good public policy to allow the trucks to open the window and start selling food whenever and wherever they want. We need permanent businesses who have made the monetary commitment to pay monthly rent and utilities etc to keep our city viable, and if a truck just so happens to stop on the street in front of a restaurant such as this, the permanent venue is at a competitive disadvantage. So as long as the food trucks aren’t given free reign, they are a welcome and refreshing addition to the culinary scene.

  • Bryon Martin

    As a follow up: What it boil down to is that the trucks should only be able to set up shop on either private property, or specifically designated public spaces (such as what Quinlivan is suggesting). They should not be able to use public sidewalks and streets whenever or wherever they want. Allowing that will put other local restaurants with higher overhead (and a more significant contribution to our local economy and taxes), and a major competitive disadvantage.

  • Quimbob:

    I believe the intent is to guarantee locations for the food trucks in the busy/crowded downtown area during lunch. Outside of that there would not be much need as the trucks seem to move about town.

    In the event that the number of food trucks triple, it would seem to make sense to charge a rate for using that location similar to what the street food vendors do now.

  • Zack

    Provided they do this wisely (which is against their nature)it makes sense.

    I’m thinking of areas like the Race and 5th parking lot, anywhere near P&G, lot on 7th and Vine, one of the MANY MANY alleys we do not utilize (would love to see one in Ogden Alley before ballgames).

    I have not qualms about mobile eateries vs. eat-in locations. The mobiles are at a much much greater disadvantage in the colder months, and anytime people want to escape the office for a while.

  • Bryon Martin

    Zack, I agree with the alley usage and setting up shop in places like P&G pavillion etc. Those make sense because while there are time of the day/year where there is a need for dining, but as of yet not enough trafic/demand to sustain a permanent business.

    I disagree however with having no issue w/ mobile vs permanent dining. When I first started discussing this topic with city administration, my first reaction was…”well the permanent locations should just serve a better product if they are losing business to a truck parked in front of them.” However, the more and more you look at the comparison, owners of dine-in venues have put in MUCH more time, money and effort to get their business running between construction and permitting costs, rent, equipment, staff etc. and their interests do need to be protected. If a restaurant is not successful because their concept and delivery is inferior to another option 2 doors down, well then that is their own problem because at least they were on an even playing field.

    Again, I support the whole truck food movement, and have been ecstatic on nights where they end up for example, at Grammer’s. It works when they are a compliment to other locally owned businesses, just not at the expense of others that have much more invested in our community already.

  • Micah

    I understand Bryon’s concern, “We need permanent businesses who have made the monetary commitment to pay monthly rent and utilities etc to keep our city viable…” but please remember that these trucks pay commissary fees, utilities, taxes, state food inspection fees etc. The goal of CFTA (Cincinnati Food Truck Alliance) has been clear from the beginning, to not directly compete, or pull up in front of restaurants and sell food. If there are concerns, please address it to either Tom or I and we will tackle it head on. We are more than willing and have been incredibly clear that we want to work with the community.

  • Bryon Martin

    Micah, I completely agree and maybe my comments came across as “anti-food truck”. I so I apologize and that could not be further from my sentiments. I was only point ing out the need for clarification and regulations (on both sides) Having dedicated locations for the trucks would in my opinion help their success by allowing those not connected with the “twittervers” etc, to still have an idea of when and where to enjoy some great truck food, without getting their tweets etc.

  • I think Bryon does have a point though. While the existing food trucks have good intentions, future food trucks may not. In this case we may want to have some ideas in mind to keep things from getting ugly with food places that have an actual establishment.

    Right now there do not seem to be any issues, but it could get out of hand especially during the busy hours in downtown Cincinnati where competition is high and the profits potentially huge.

  • Zack

    I think many of us can agree at the end of the day its about 1. quality of food and 2. service. If Cafe de Wheels takes the market by storm, they can open a storefront downtown and keep the truck for campus and northside. Same with the taco trucks.

    There are plenty of Queen City examples where the food was good but the service was bad (in fact too many examples), or the business know-how factor wasnt there.

    I do smirk when I read Skyline throwing their hat in the ring. Where inside I-275 is there a lack of skyline presence?

  • mike g

    Just how many food trucks do you think this city can support? Let the market decide who operates and who doesn’t, and that includes food trucks parking in front of/near restaurants. Dining inside and eating from a food truck are two very different experiences. You either want to eat indoors at a table or you don’t. I highly doubt that there are many people who originally have plans to eat at Senate, suddenly change their mind and get Cafe De Wheels instead (unless there’s a good reason, like an hour wait at Senate). And just because you open up a restaurant doesn’t mean someone can’t open up right next door. Whether or not it’s cheaper to operate one or the other really doesn’t matter. Restaurants might be more expensive to start but trucks can’t sell liquor and don’t have indoor seating. That’s the breaks. Overall, competition is part of doing business, limiting it breeds poor quality and high prices.

  • Mike G:

    I don’t think anyone was suggesting we limit the number of food trucks, or prevent them from operating their business.

    I personally agree that in most cases they serve different purposes, but there are those instances where uneasyness might occur, and it just seems like a better approach to at least think about it upfront rather than being surprised by it later.

  • Mike G

    By creating designated places for food trucks you are setting a limit, unless the lot is so massive that it can accommodate way more trucks than can feasibly exist in a city like Cincinnati. A lot that size is unlikely to be located anywhere convenient to pedestrians walking the city. Yes,there will likely be uneasyness between truck operators and brick n’ mortars, but I’m arguing that uneasyness comes with the territory. Since the dawn of the restaurant, Joe’s Diner has always hated Jack’s Diner across the street. Of course not everyone’s like that, but I can think of at least three instances locally where there are “feuds” between restaurants located next or across from each other. I also think that Quinliven’s logic is faulty in thinking that spreading out the trucks will cause people to go to other parts of the city. The whole idea of the food trucks is to go to where the people are, not park and wait for folks to find you. It is my opinion that both the trucks and city-goers lose in this scenario.

  • Yasin

    Ummmmmmm, should we apply the same rules to ice cream trucks? In terms of fixed locations?

    I think not. Councilwoman Quinlivan and others in the business community should stay out of this. Smart, interesting and fun businesses such as these trucks will attract people to downtown Cincinnati, Northside, etc. I’m coming back home this Friday for nine days and I must tell you that checking out Cafe de Wheels and the Taco Truck are on my top ten list.

  • Michael

    If you’re worried about competition, start a food truck. The playing field is never even.