Mobile Food Vendors – In Search of a Consenus

Mobile food vendor Daisy Mendoza addresses the Hispanic Advisory Committee Monday night.

A small, but keenly interested group of citizens attended the third of four public hearings Monday aimed at shaping an ordinance that would regulate mobile food vendors in Hermiston.

A Hermiston City Council subcommittee on mobile food vendors has been working with the Hispanic Advisory Committee (HAC) to gather feedback from the community on the issue. Prior to Monday night, a one-hour hearing was held before the Hermiston Business Advisory Committee and a two-hour hearing took place at a Hermiston Planning Commission meeting. Monday’s hearing before the HAC lasted two and half hours.

The format of Monday’s meeting followed that of the previous hearings. A list of 14 questions was addressed with committee and audience members providing their input on each one. And while few specifics were nailed down, a general consensus emerged: Mobile food vendors are good for Hermiston, but regulations are needed to ensure the public’s safety, protect established businesses from those trying to circumvent the law, and preserve the city’s visual aesthetics.

Up until now, mobile food vendors have been able to operate where, when and however they choose, much to the dismay of a number of brick-and-mortar restaurants, as well as a few mobile food vendors, themselves.

“There hasn’t been anything to go on (to regulate the vendors) and that’s why we’re here – to come up with reasonable and fair regulations for everybody,” said HAC Chairman Eddie de la Cruz. One of the key issues that any proposed ordinance will have to address is that of mobility. Most, but not all, mobile food vendors in Hermiston are actually permanently located in one spot.

“Most of the vendors we’re talking about are mobile vendors that are immobile,” said Hermiston City Councilor John Kirwan, who also sits on the mobile food vendor subcommittee.

Several of Hermiston’s food vendors were in the audience Monday night and expressed concern that regulations could hurt their business. Hermiston City Councilor George Anderson said regulations are needed and that they are a far better alternative to what others in the community would like to see happen.

“There is a large segment in the city that has a simple solution to this issue – ban all mobile vending,” he said. “I do not agree with that. I think we are the best friends mobile vendors have, but we cannot circumvent the law.”

All 14 questions were addressed Monday night and some elicited a more spirited discussion than others. Among those were:

What Are the Positives of Mobile Food Vendors?
Several people said mobile food vendors are locally-owned businesses that should be supported.

“It’s like supporting a mom and pop business,” said Hermiston resident Antonio Yzaguirre. Nina Sobotta, who owns Counseling Made Solutions in Hermiston, agreed.

“I’d rather go to a locally-owned taco wagon with the money going back into the community rather than to a conglomerate,” she said. “These people are dreamers. They are making a living and keeping the money in Hermiston and we need to think about that.”

Her response drew applause from those in the audience.

Hermiston resident Mitch Thompson said mobile food vendors add to Hermiston’s cultural diversity.

“It’s a cultural bringing together,” he said. “If Hermiston is trying to be inclusive, don’t drive these people out.”

What Are the Negatives of Mobile Food Vendors?
HAC member Hector Ramirez said mobile food vendors can create public safety hazards with limited parking in small, busy spaces.

Anderson said many of the vendors have an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar businesses.

“These folks have found a loophole in the law,” he said. “They fly in the face of ordinances and codes. Your stick-built businesses have to comply with city and state codes that are expensive. People building these businesses have a myriad of requirements, none of which are complied with by these mobile food vendors.”

HAC member Fawny Venon said public health concerns her.

“I look at cleanliness and sanitation,” she said. “I would like to know they are following certain codes.”

“When I go to one of these places I look at cleanliness,” de la Cruz said. “We want Hermiston to be seen as a clean community. Appearance is very important.”

If Vendors Are Required to Become Mobile, What Transition Time Might Be Allowed?
Because many food vendors have been permanently located in the same spot for years, there’s been general agreement that they will need time to make the changes necessary to move their trailers or vans from one place to another. But how much time was up for debate Monday. Ramirez and fellow HAC member Virginia Garcia said 90 days should be sufficient. Others suggested 180 days.

“I think I would vote for 180 days,” de la Cruz said. “Ninety days is a pretty short time.” Anderson agreed, as did Sobotta.

“I think six months is enough time to allow them to prepare,” she said.

Should the Number of Vendors Be Limited?
“I think it would be a good thing to know there’s not going to be 50 more coming to town,” said Vernon. But she added that any fixed number could be tied to population growth; as Hermiston’s population increases, additional vendors could be permitted to operate. Currently, the city has identified 13 mobile food vendors in town.

The next public hearing on the proposed mobile food vendor regulations is scheduled for 7 p.m., July 9 at Hermiston City Hall.