It's hard to talk about street food without referencing Portland, where pedestrians can easily eat every meal—breakfast, lunch, dinner, second dinner, drunk snack, Thanksgiving—on the street, with their fingers, if they so desire. We simply don't have those kinds of options in Seattle, mostly because of a few poorly written, decades old laws that govern street food—laws that require sidewalk vendors to get written permission from the businesses they vend in front of, and basically limit their wares to popcorn, hot dogs, and coffee (really). But those rules are about to change.

More please.
  • James Callan via Flickr
  • More please.
This month, the DPD will introduce legislation to the Seattle City Council to vastly improve the city laws regulating where and how street vendors—both sidewalk carts and curbside food trucks—are allowed to operate. If passed by the council, the changes would apply to commercial areas of the city only (not residential neighborhoods). "We're hopeful that we can get a new system in place before good weather sets in," says Gary Johnson, a street use mastermind with the Department of Planning Development (DPD) who's helped craft the new legislation.

If passed, the new rules would allow up to two sidewalk cart vendors per city block face (or eight per block), and empower the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to create curbside food zones where food trucks could park and sell.

"Currently it’s not legal for a food trucks to vend from any roadway in the city—only on private property," explains Johnson. But under the proposed changes, a food truck could pull up and vend curbside to pedestrians. In areas where more than one vendor applies for a space—blocks along the busy Pike/Pine corridor, for instance—SDOT would award permits through a lottery drawing. The new rules would also eliminate the written permission mandate and set up a vendor notification system instead (essentially taking the power to deny vendors the right to sell away from businesses).

The DPD also partnered with the health department to tweak what food could be sold on the streets. "Health code regulations currently limit food carts to selling popcorn, hot dogs, and coffee," says Johnson. "But the health department is now proposing a broader law that would basically only prohibit the preparation of raw proteins on a cart." Which means a vendor could cook hamburgers in a kitchen and then quickly grill them to order from a food cart. "Basically, the onus would be on the vendor to convince the health department that whatever they intend to sell could be done safely from a cart—which means you could sell almost anything," Johnson says.

But the permits would be slightly different for sidewalk (cart) and curbside (truck) vendors. Sidewalk vendors would most likely be issued a one-year permit without restrictions. Truck vendors, who would be vying for zoned areas throughout the city, would most likely be issued permits to vend in four-hour blocks, says Angela Steel, a spokeswoman for SDOT.

Restaurant owners are already squawking about the increased competition vendors will bring. "We've heard some concerns," admits Johnson, who says the DPD has tried to address concerns by requiring sidewalk vendors to stay 50 feet from any business that sells food (restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, etc.). "But from our point of view, it's not an either/or argument. Street foods and restaurants can thrive together." Active sidewalks are a sign of a robust city and drawing more pedestrians to commercial areas is bound to boost all neighborhood businesses.

"The changes are incredibly exciting," says council member Sally Clark, who will be reviewing the legislation as chair of the council's built environment committee. "I don't want to jinx things but I think we'll have this passed by summer."