Gourmet food trucks collide with confusing Denver regulations

Gourmet food trucks were the surprise hit of 2010 -- by December, over 150 mobile food vendors had been licensed in Denver, which almost put the movement on par with the medical-marijuana dispensary business. And like dispensaries, the food trucks have been causing some headaches for the city -- and definitely vice versa.

Yesterday afternoon, a Denver City Council committee met to consider a draft of a Food Truck Guide, which pulls together all the current rules affecting the industry in a new format, one that is supposed to be clearer.

Five different city departments are involved -- public works (since the trucks frequently park on public streets and use the right-of-way), environmental health (which licenses food-prep operations), planning (which includes zoning), excise and licenses, and parks (if the trucks plan to use the parks). Maneuvering their way through all these agencies has been confusing for truck owners, causing some, including the Denver Cupcake Truck, to ground their mobile operations altogether (and for mayoral candidate Chris Romer to take up cupcakes as a cause).

"I appreciate the agencies coming together," said committee co-chair Doug Linkhart, another mayoral candidate. "There's been quite an uproar. Part of that uproar caused by lack of clarity."

Enough of an uproar that the committee room was packed with truck entrepreneurs, as well as an overflow crowd of thirty watching the proceedings in another room upstairs at City Hall. But after an hour of discussion, it was clear there was no clarity.

"Let's make sure we all understand what the rules are before we change them," said Denver City Council President Chris Nevitt, who then asked everyone in the room, "Are you confident you know exactly what the rules are?"

No hands were raised -- not even at the table where the councilmembers sat.

Councilwoman Carla Madison was volunteered to head a task force that will work with truck owners, restaurant owners, neighborhood leaders and others to clean up the draft of the current rules. But that's not all: The task force will also propose some changes to regulations that were established at least a decade ago, and in some cases, in the much more distant past, long before anyone envisioned gourmet food trucks taking off. For example, one requirement is that trucks not park within 200 feet of each other -- which would make all those hip, happening Justice League events of the past few months completely illegal.

For now, the buck -- and the truck -- stops here, where you can read the draft Food Truck Guide.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Trader Joe's: Colorado would be more colorful if the store would join IKEA -- but will it?"

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Michelle Lau Reynoso
Michelle Lau Reynoso

I'm so confused at why the city won't allow the Lunch Trucks to just roll.. as long as they're not blocking traffic, parked in front of a restaurant, or for that matter bothering anyone.


No question, the mainstream media considers cupcakes more telegenic than taco trucks. (Harrison Fletcher wrote a great story on how the rules affected loncheras for Westword back in 2002, and Laura Shunk followed up on that in December). But there's no question that some of the rules are confusing -- check out the regulations for vending within 300 feet of the parks, for example -- and some are antiquated (why shouldn't trucks be able to park within 200 feet of each other at special events on private property?). Good luck to Carla Madison in sorting this out with her task force.


To call this matter confusing is to equivalent to calling tides miraculous. One vendor didn't get away with blatantly breaking the rules, which have for at least a couple of decades been available to all vendors in any number of vendor specific publications from the city, and now that vendor gets a bit of media attention.

The city vendor ordinances primarily protect the investment into brick and mortar restaurants by preventing vendors from setting up right outside of a restaurant. This encourages investment into generally higher sales tax generating activity, higher property taxes due to improvement of real estate, and generally higher employment associated with restaurants than food carts/trucks.

Next, the city limits vendors to fixed locations in the central business district and regulates the size of their carts, coloring, singe, so to minimize obstructions and distractions for both the pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Finally, the city limits vendors to only two locations for any business or businesses with common ownership to prevent monopolization or unfair business practices like a large restaurant chain putting a cart in front of their competitor's front door. I heard a story that there used to be a company that owned more than a hundred carts in Denver in the seventies and that this made it impossible for competition to get into the market (I never researched this but maybe a journalist would look at it to understand the rationale behind the rules).

I find it very funny that all of the immigrant vendors, who barely speak English, if at all, manage to follow these "confusing" rules with relative ease, while the Denver Cupcake owners were confused by the fact that there were rules. What did they think? That they were geniuses for coming up with an idea that they would roam the downtown and setup anywhere they thought fit with no regard for other vendors or restaurant owners?

The rules are not perfect by far, but "confusing" they are not either, so please don't insult our intelligence. Any business owner follows hundreds or rules/laws everyday because it is their business. They pay taxes, get licenses, get insurance.


I get the impression of Denver bureaucracy that no one in it even supposes that anyone should have a comprehensive understanding of any number of different categories of regulations (certainly those appertaining to food), much less try to communicate the City's requirements clearly and directly to those it regulates -- why, that might be construed as giving legal advice. I gather that the City delights in advising vendors of one required license, only to subsequently cite them because they haven't obtained another. This isn't Byzantium, so I see no reason for Denver to have byzantine regulation of food trucks. As for Romer's cupcake crusade -- how did I miss that? I HATE cupcakes!

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