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Food trucks report harsher enforcement

Food truck Plouf Plouf starts petition in wake of jump in disputed parking violations

The owners of the food trucks Mama Kim’s, Lotus Pepper and Buddha Belly said a sudden surge in police enforcement of parking laws has restricted their operations on Thayer Street and in the downtown area.

Food trucks were previously allowed to park and operate freely as long as they had proper licenses, did not violate any parking laws and relocated every two hours. But police are now limiting food trucks to one hour instead of two and barring them from parking in spots designated with white lines — even when they are parked in legal spaces during legal hours, said Thang Huynh, owner of Lotus Pepper.

“Police are kicking us out for old laws that they just all of a sudden started to enforce,” Huynh said. “To be honest, we feel like we are being bullied.”

The Providence Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The heightened police enforcement comes after a complaint by the Hope Street Merchants Association. Huynh speculated that restaurants have complained because food trucks were cutting into their revenues.

Though food trucks are not required to maintain a certain distance from restaurants, many food trucks park at least 100 feet away from restaurants out of courtesy, said Eric Weiner, founder and president of Food Trucks In, a Providence-based company that connects food trucks and customers in more than 885 cities across the country, according to its website.

Approximately 49 food trucks are licensed to operate in Rhode Island, and 15 food trucks have licenses to operate around campus, Weiner added.

The parking spots that are now off-limits to the trucks are located in places with the most foot traffic, such as downtown, Thayer Street and other areas on campus.

Paul Gervais, owner of Buddha Belly and a newcomer to Providence’s food truck scene, said police have been “hostile and intimidating.” While parked near Thayer in December, Gervais was approached by a police officer, asked to show his permits and forced to leave because the truck was parked on white lines, even though it was Sunday and there was no meter, he said. “The cop had a really bad attitude.”

“They threatened my staff and my company in December,” wrote Don Fecher, CEO of Mama Kim’s, in an email to The Herald.

Mama Kim’s has not broken any laws and has all necessary documents and licenses, Fecher wrote, adding, “After nearly four years of business, all of a sudden now we’re ‘breaking the law’? It’s laughable.”

Several food truck owners noted miscommunication and confusion about the legal boundaries of operation and parking.

“They should have a formal letter or notice instead of just coming at us,” Huynh said. “Don’t treat me like a criminal. I’m selling food.”

The miscommunication stems from the fact that different city departments have been forced to interpret how the old city ordinances on parking for small businesses apply to food trucks, Weiner said.

Plouf Plouf, a food truck offering French cuisine, has started a petition demanding that Mayor Jorge Elorza reform “outdated laws (that) protect traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants from the competition of mobile restaurants.” The petition currently has less than 10 percent of the total number of desired signatories.

Mama Kim’s is not involved in Plouf Plouf’s petition and “hopes to gain nothing from (its) efforts in any way,” Fecher wrote, adding that Plouf Plouf’s “practices are a pox on the community as a whole.”

Some trucks such as Plouf Plouf “have been a continual problem, blocking loading zones, parking in a no-parking area, obstructing the pedestrian crossing at Soldier’s Arch,” wrote Al Dahlberg, director of state and community relations, in an email obtained by The Herald. “The vast majority are fine, and we see (them) as assets for the community,” he added.

Gervais said he spent a substantial amount of money on obtaining health permits and licenses to operate. He added that he has only operated Buddha Belly two days since Dec. 20, missing out on potential revenue.

“I can’t wait a year or two for the laws to change,” Gervais said. “We all have families. I don’t know how long I can wait before I’m out of the food business.”

Without any formal association or alliance, food trucks have difficultly asking for a change in police policy, Weiner said. Food Trucks In is currently helping to “mold the conversation” between the trucks, the city, merchants associations and restaurants “until they have the strength and money to start their own organization,” he said.

A meeting about potential changes between food truck owners and city officials is scheduled to take place the first week of March, Weiner added.

Food truck owners suggested various solutions to the issue. Some said the University could mediate the problem, since many food truck customers are Brown community members.

Another possible fix is for food trucks to pay a monthly fee to secure a space on campus, Gervais said.

Fecher wrote that he hopes Mama Kim’s is brought back to campus as a contracted food service.

Huynh said a number of students, faculty members and staff members have called Lotus Pepper to inquire about the lack of food trucks nearby and have even offered their private parking spaces to the trucks.

Students — both regular customers and those who have never purchased food from the trucks — expressed desire for the trucks to remain in close proximity to campus.

“I’d feel very sad if they were to disappear from Thayer,” said Sha Sha ’15. “It’s a really fun alternative to places like the Ratty.”

Misha Stone ’16 echoed this sentiment. “It’s always the same food that’s available on campus. … The eateries close really early, and where the food trucks might have been there, they’re not there anymore,” Stone said.

Many students said they miss the food trucks’ familiar presence as much as the flavors they offered.

“I’d walk out of the (Sciences Library), and I’d smell Mama Kim’s, and that would make me really happy and feel really warm,” said Daniel Larson ’15. “That was one thing I remember from my freshman year at Brown: people saying, ‘Oh, you need to do that. You need to go there. It’s such a Brown experience.’”


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