Street Eats

Obstacle Course

Why Seattle Doesn't Have More Street Food

Seattle is a shitty town for street food. Citywide, a mere 18 vendors offer hot dogs, popcorn, and espresso from open-air carts throughout the city, where, for half the year, they cower under temporary canvas shelters, struggling to keep the rain from colonizing the condiments.

But despite Seattle's often- inhospitable weather, a fair number of aspiring street vendors have attempted to set up shop under the wary auspices of the city and county. Those vendors find themselves hurdling through an obstacle course of often-perplexing regulations for the right to occupy a five-by-eight-foot space on the sidewalk.

The first hurdle in setting up a street food business in Seattle is the county's food code. In its most recent iteration (a new version is due to come out next month), the food code restricts small kiosks--the three-by-six-foot carts commonly seen outside clubs like the Showbox and Chop Suey--to selling "non-potentially hazardous" items like popcorn and pretzels, and beverages like espresso and certain (though not all) juices. (Lemonade: OK; apple juice: not OK.) "Potentially hazardous" items--things that can go bad--come with a whole list of additional requirements, including a large, three-compartment dishwashing sink with hot and cold running water, on-site refrigeration, and a separate, on-site hand-washing sink. (Taco trucks, which have their own internal kitchens and refrigeration systems, fall under this latter list of requirements.)

Despite all the requirements imposed by the county, Rick Miklich, food and facilities manager for the health department, says he doesn't think street-food vendors "face a whole lot of onerous requirements." Instead, he blames Seattle's relative lack of street food on market forces like minimum-wage laws and licensing requirements, plus the fact that Seattle remains relatively small. And, he notes, the regulations are considerably less stringent for nonperishable or precooked foods like espresso and hot dogs, which aren't considered "potentially hazardous," than for other nonprepared foods like rice, fresh fruit, and raw meat.

Some critics, including the conservative free-market advocates at the Washington Policy Center, think King County's regulations (and, by extension, Washington State's, since King County's food code parrots state rules) over-protect public health at the expense of entrepreneurship. In a 2004 paper, a Policy Center analyst blamed burdensome licensing, insurance, and permitting restrictions for quashing the street-vending industry in the city. "Seattle's heavy-handed regulations leave many entrepreneurs out in the rain, prohibited from selling anything on city streets," the paper claimed.

Do Seattle's health rules go too far? The balance between encouraging business and protecting public health is clearly a delicate one. But the link between less-stringent regulations and a vibrant street-food scene is hard to deny. Other cities the same size as Seattle, like Austin, Texas, have fewer health regulations--and, not coincidentally, a colorful mix of street food that makes Seattle's hot-dog-popcorn-and-espresso hegemony look pallid by comparison.

Health regulations, of course, aren't the only hoop aspiring street vendors have to jump through. Equally important is the city's regulatory process, which requires vendors to pay licensing fees, gain access to the sidewalk, and get written permission from nearby businesses. If a business or building manager says no, a prospective vendor must roll his cart elsewhere. Street-food sellers who want to serve hot food must get additional approval from the fire department, and vendors operating outside the stadiums face extra licensing requirements.

"Our main concern is maintaining the safety of the streets," says Seattle Transportation Department Spokesperson (and street-food fan) Liz Rankin. Rankin acknowledges that Seattle's street food is nothing compared to the fare in cities like New York, "where you can get a five-course meal in one block," but adds that "we have such a proliferation of delis and cafes all over downtown that it kind of makes up for it."

But delis and cafes, as anyone who has lived in a vibrant street-food city can tell you, are poor replacements for the instant gratification of walking down the street, gyro (or French fries, or falafel, or taco) in hand. Street food isn't the only thing that makes a city a city. But it does mark one major difference between diverse, thriving, 24-hour metropolises and cities, like Seattle, that too often trade grit and vibrancy for cleanliness and sterility.

 

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