Story and photos by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
On a rainy afternoon last spring, I got my first glimpse at what was soon to become one of Seattle’s newest mobile food trucks, making its debut this Sunday in West Seattle.
Parked on a quiet side street in North Delridge, it didn’t look like much at the time. The boxy, aluminum truck – which at that point had only recently been plucked off of Craigslist – still bore signs of its previous use by a plumbing company. However, like most entrepreneurs, Damiana Merryweather had vision, not to mention a contagious enthusiasm for what the truck could be. Perhaps more significantly, she also had an abundance of patience, which she would discover, is second only to money when it comes to starting a street food business in Seattle. But above all, Merryweather’s focus was on the food.
“We become deeply human when we sit down to a plate of food,” she would tell me later, in drier, more comfortable conditions: ensconced in plush chairs at a local café, with mugs of hot coffee in our hands. She added, “Food is such a catalyst for community, family holidays, friends….it brings us together. There’s a comforting human connection.”
Merryweather is an Oregon native who began on quite a different career path. Though she worked in and out of food-related jobs when she was younger, for more than a decade she had enjoyed a successful career in political campaigns and lobbying. But at a certain point she decided to come back to food. She moved to Seattle in 2006 and a few years later, was hired on as a consultant to aid the launch of the Swinery. “Working there reminded me of how much I love customer service,” she said, “And I don’t mean that in a cheesy salesman kind of way, but truly helping people. Engaging their imaginations about meals. Making connections.”
OK then. But why a street food truck? “There’s obviously a capital barrier to owning a restaurant. The investment costs for even a small restaurant are substantial,” she said, “And lending issues significantly complicate owning a business.” Merryweather also had perceived how some restaurants can have a sense of social separation. “Street food is an equalizer. We’re all the same when we’re standing at the window of a street food truck.”
Merryweather’s new creation, Damiana’s Blue Truck Special, will have its first day in West Seattle this Sunday, July 31st, from 11 am until 2 pm, at 3623 SW Alaska St. (outside of Dr. Terrill Harrington’s medical practice) in the Triangle. Merryweather is calling her concept “Elevated Comfort Food,” with a changing menu of “familiar but unconventional” sandwiches, salads and (when the weather cools) soups. Her menu can be found on her website.
In addition to offering an opportunity to bring people together with cuisine, she said that mobile food trucks also have a stabilizing component for the locality that she liked. “Street food has the capacity to generate more foot traffic on streets, which can make it safer for neighborhoods. That’s appealing too.”
Merryweather isn’t the only one promoting the notion that more street food trucks in Seattle neighborhoods will have benefits beyond expanding the diversity of food offerings. The subject of mobile cuisine has been prominent in the news as of late, as the City of Seattle for many months studied the issue and recently decided to ease the rules that regulate the placement of street food vendors in the public right of way. During this process, City leaders looked to Portland, with its many hundreds of food trucks and carts, to gauge what mobile food has meant for our neighbors to the south.
“Portland officials have acknowledged that the street food scene there has been very positive in terms of economic development,” said Gary Johnson, Center-City Coordinator for Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). He added, “It has really branded neighborhoods and has increased foot traffic. People really seem to like it.”
The text of the DPD’s Seattle Street Food Initiative said that the City’s research has found the benefits of street food trucks to include, among other things, promoting economic vitality, helping to brand neighborhoods by attracting foot traffic to retail districts, increasing access to healthy, local food, and lowering the entry level for people to own their own business. That may be the reason why the initiative has had strong support from Mayor McGinn as well as Councilmember Sally Clark, who spearheaded the recent changes in City policy.
(Deep-fried peanut butter and jelly, West Seattle Summer Fest)
Anyone who has ever bought a hot dog from a street vendor, funnel cake at a carnival, or who can remember a suburban childhood with the distant peal of ice cream truck bells, knows that street food is by no means a novel idea. In fact, for centuries in the crowded cities of Asia and throughout various parts of the developing world, street food vendors have provided customers with a leading source of inexpensive, fresh, healthy food of tremendous diversity.
And especially in the last decade, as more upscale mobile food vendors have burgeoned in West Coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Seattle has been surprisingly slow on the uptake, despite what seems like wild enthusiasm for the few street food trucks that have managed to get up and running.
I asked Johnson why the City of Seattle has for decades seemed so averse to allowing anything more than coffee, hot dogs or popcorn to be sold on the streets of Seattle. “Well, when we began our research on this recently, there wasn’t very much in terms of a historical narrative about what happened. But what we’ve determined was that the City really cracked down in the early 80’s by making the codes a lot more stringent because there was a sense that vending had gotten out of control downtown.” More specifically, Johnson said that there was a collection of wooden shacks under the south end of the Monorail (in the area that today is occupied by the Westlake Center) that had become a blight. “That really put the lid on any kind of development of a street food scene here, compared to what has flourished in Portland.”
(Street food, Hanoi, Vietnam)
The recent changes will mean that downtown will no longer be completely off-limits to food trucks, as they have been since that time. They’ll also no longer be confined to private lots, as has been the practice since the relatively recent re-emergence of mobile food vendors, which generally began with Josh Henderson’s Skillet in 2007. However, as much as the revised regulation will provide new venues for food trucks in areas of the City with high concentrations of people, those setting up and/or running food trucks say the recent developments are only a positive first step.
“It’s still so much easier to start up a mobile food business in Portland,” said Merryweather, “Multnomah County has really streamlined the rules. And because there are so much more street food, there are more resources available for getting started.” A more efficient permitting process may account for why there are around 600 mobile food vendors licensed to do business in and around Portland. Seattle has less than half that and most of the mobile food vendors licensed here are hot dog carts. Merryweather said her first step was to take a trip back to Portland to seek inspiration, where the city’s tremendous diversity of mobile food provided rich pickings.
Once she decided what she wanted to do, and had found a suitable vehicle – a GMC step van – she took her truck back to Portland to have it outfitted there. Despite Seattle’s extensive aircraft industries, she said had difficulty finding someone locally who could cut a rectangular hole, from which she would serve customers, in the side of her aluminum truck. While in Portland she had a few other components installed, including water tanks and a generator mount. She also hired mobile food consultants to advise her. “There is a lot to figure out in terms of design,” she said, “considering the amount of space you have and the flow of your kitchen.”
But though Portland offered expanded resources for equipment and advice, there were unforeseen disadvantages to going out of state. “I didn’t have the money to have a complete outfit done there,‘ she said, “ And in Portland I was an out of towner so things were a bit more complicated. I probably ultimately overpaid for the consultants.” Though she perhaps did not realize it at the time, just taking her truck out of Washington for a few new components automatically added an additional layer of regulatory approvals, from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I)
Merryweather was hardly the only new street food vendor surprised by this complication. DPD’s Johnson said, “The horror story that I’ve heard was with Marination Mobile. They bought a taco truck in L.A. and began to have it assembled there with a plan to just drive it up here to Washington. Then at some point along the way they realized that they needed this L&I approval. But the truck needs to be inspected along the way. You can’t just arrive with a completed truck as there are plumbing and other things that get covered up by walls and counters. So they ended up having to fly inspectors down to L.A. multiple times, and put them up in hotels, which was obviously expensive. And as I understand it, you can eliminate the need for L&I approvals as long as your truck is completely built in Washington.”
(Marination Mobile at High Point)
Despite her experience of more than 13 years in politics and lobbying, Merryweather said that she had difficulty wading through the requirements of multiple jurisdictions. “The rules were far from clear and concrete. And some of the codes and rules seemed ambiguous.” In addition to L&I, Merryweather said that during the process she either sought approval or had to abide by regulations from: Public Health – Seattle & King County, City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD), Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), the Seattle Police Department and the Seattle Fire Department. “Each component of the approvals process only seemed to have jurisdiction over a small part,” she said, “and often the rules were vague and depended on who was inspecting you on a given day.” Merryweather said that the construction and approvals also had to be arranged into a careful puzzle, as certain certifications must be done by one department before the process can proceed with another.
Considering that a key factor in the appeal of food trucks is a lower cost of entry, ill-timed delays in the process from lack of approvals, or requirements that completed work must be undone, has a greater capacity to torpedo the plans of an entrepreneur already challenged by a limited budget. “If the regulations had been more clearly written I could have avoided a lot of aggravation and delays.”
Skillet’s Josh Henderson is often cited as a pioneer of Seattle street food trucks, blazing a trail in 2007 as he first began serving his food from a mobile Airstream. He certainly faced many of the same challenges Merryweather did in navigating the regulations of various agencies. I spoke to him recently about the changes approved by the City Council and whether he thought more could be done to simplify the process. He said, “Look, I totally know where Damiana is coming from, but it’s baby steps. You have to look at where we’ve been for the last 20 years. We’re now going to have an opportunity to operate on the streets of Seattle, and that’s a complete change. It isn’t perfect but Seattle never gets it right the first time. The first step is starting to change the rules to some degree and the second and third step will be to change them some more.”
One of the existing rules that still have Merryweather and some others bristling, is the requirement that all mobile street food trucks in Seattle are required to have access to a hard-plumbed, flushed toilet, as opposed to portable toilets, within 200 feet of their location. These bathrooms are required, not for customers, but for food truck owners and employees who must wash their hands after using the restroom, walk back to their truck, and then wash their hands again before returning to service.
Merryweather thinks the toilet requirement is arcane. “My truck is required to have clean water, hot water and soap for both dishes and hand-washing. I don’t see why a flushed toilet with 200 feet is required.” She said that potential street food truck operators are required to have an agreement for access to a plumed toilet in place with an adjacent property owner before they can even begin much of the work on their truck. She suggests that the lack of this requirement in Portland has made it a lot easier for street food trucks there.
However, Christopher Skilton, an investigator for Public Health, Seattle & King County, doubts that is the case. “That’s actually a federal requirement so I don’t know how they’d be able to get around that in Portland. And I happen to think it is a reasonable rule. Please, it is just about all I can do right now to get hot dog cart vendors on First Avenue to relieve themselves somewhere other than in the alley.”
Henderson said, “There has got to be some difference in the way things are enforced in Portland because there are 600 food trucks there and I guarantee you that all of those people don’t have commercial letters from bathroom owners authorizing the use of their bathrooms.” But he adds, “That’s a challenging requirement. But it’s not going to go anywhere in Seattle. They’re pretty adamant about that one.”
Johnson said, “I’m just speculating, but there is a chance that states have the discretion about how to enforce the federal laws on that. I know that Councilmember Clark is well aware of that issue and, as she sits on the King County Board of Health, she is right in the middle of that one. I understand it is a big deal because the way the rule stands now, many potential locations are not viable if you can’t get that permission.”
(Marination Mobile and Maximus Minimus, Interbay Mobile Chowdown)
Otherwise, Johnson offers hope that the City otherwise is focused on working to streamline the process for new street food entrepreneurs. “We’re going to be collaborating with the Health Department on client assistance memos to try to make [the process] as clear as possible. We’re not proposing to eliminate any permit requirements, just provide better coordination. A major focus of our initiative is to expand opportunities to legally vend from the roadway curbside. And the Health Department has been a great partner and has agreed to change the way they review and permit sidewalk carts to potentially allow much greater diversity of foods from a sidewalk cart than is the case now.”
We moved on to the subject of pushback: the opposition that has come from bricks and mortar restaurant owners who feel that increased mobile food vendors will negatively affect their business. Johnson said that, during the process, DPD did hear some concern. “If I had to characterize it I’d say that more concern has been expressed by the bricks and mortar restaurants that sell lower-cost food, as they have this perception of direct competition. But higher-end restaurants tend to buy into the idea that street food can create a buzz in retail districts, which brings in more foot traffic for both retailers and restaurants.”
Still, Johnson said he recognizes that, especially in the current economy, there will be some who simply are not convinced that more street food trucks are a good thing. “The City acknowledges the need to protect the interests of bricks and mortar restaurants. And part of what we heard from business districts and other stakeholders were concerns about litter and about enforcement of the rules. Johnson said the City, on a somewhat infrequent basis, has gone out at night with enforcement teams comprised of representatives from Health, Street Use, Fire and Police, Revenue and Consumer Affairs, to inspect trucks and verify business licenses.
He said that even the existing street food truck owners themselves have been in favor of better enforcement. “They don’t want to play by the rules, getting all of the permits they need, and then get undercut by illegal street food trucks either. So all along as we’ve focused on opening up the system, we realized there will have to be an improved enforcement mechanism too.”
Henderson has had his own first-hand experiences with pushback from bricks and mortar restaurant owners, unhappy with his presence in their neighborhoods. And he has a unique perspective on the issue as both the owner of Skillet street food trucks and of Capitol Hill’s Skillet Diner. “One of the main reasons we’re not in West Seattle anymore – and that was one of our best markets – is that we were physically threatened by a restaurant owner. I understand they’re fighting for their business. But having more street food trucks on the street means more choice for customers.” Henderson said he thinks the opposition is small minded. “If someone isn’t coming to my place of business, it’s not because someone else is parking their food truck next to me, it means that my product isn’t better than theirs.”
(Street food, Marrakech, Morocco)
He adds, “There is street food all over the world. I mean, density happens. We’re in a city that’s growing, and in a city that grows there are more options and more creativity. There are more food options being generated from different entities. We’re not trying to recreate the wheel here. This has been happening this way for hundreds of years. So this is not a new concept. This is a pretty simple one and it is called competition. If you can’t handle that then you shouldn’t be in business.”
Location is one of the most important decisions when siting a new business. And mobile food trucks have always had the advantage of not having to commit to one location. Conversely, street food trucks have to go out and find their customers. “Skillet was definitely helped by the novelty of being the first,” said Henderson, “But Seattle’s weather and a lack of population density, compared to a city like New York, works against you in guaranteeing customers will show up at a certain place and time. And on top of that, downtown, the densest part of the City, has been off limits until now. But again, it comes down to the product you’re serving. I think if you’re serving something that gets noticed, and gets press, people will find you.”
On the eve of her grand opening, Merryweather seems possessed by a demeanor that is at once excited at the prospect of building a following, and weary after more than a year of hard work on her truck. She said, “It’s funny that I’ve done all of this work just to finish at the starting line. It’s daunting. But it has always been a personal ideal to combine things I love with a way to make a living. For me, street food is the ultimate way to do that.”