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Food truck debate continues to simmer in Burien

The Burien City Council is expected to hear again Monday from local restaurateurs opposed to a pilot program that would allow food trucks in the city for the first time.

The resolution, passed March 15, would let food trucks operate anywhere in Burien 45 days after approval. Empresarios Unidos, a coalition of restaurant owners, objected to the resolution, saying that the entry of businesses with lower back-end costs — things like property taxes and utilities — would be a blow to bottom lines already weakened by coronavirus restrictions. 

The coalition is backed by Burien’s Business and Economic Development Partnership (BEDP) — a commission which counsels the Burien City Council on economic development in the city. The BEDP met with Empresarios Unidos on March 26 and returned to the City Council with recommendations for more restrictions on food trucks and prioritization of mobile businesses from Burien.

The BEDP reiterated that the City Council should prohibit food trucks in the downtown area and hold off permitting them until the state reaches Phase 4. At that point, restaurants could potentially operate unimpeded under the original state guidelines, although it is unclear if those will change. 

King County is currently in Phase 3, and restaurants may only fill up to 50 percent capacity.

Following the BEDP’s report, the City Council suggested Empresarios Unidos return for the April 5 meeting.

The restaurateurs' concerns are understandable, said Lori Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Food Truck Association, in an email, but added that trucks respond to supply and demand, too.

“Food trucks seek locations where other food options are scarce,” Johnson wrote. “It’s not advantageous for food trucks to serve near other restaurants.”

The adopted resolution would bring Burien into alignment with other cities and allow new food options into underserved areas, Johnson wrote.

In a letter accompanying the March 15 petition to the City Council, Empresarios Unidos said that the coalition did not oppose food trucks in total, but wanted tighter restrictions placed on the mobile food businesses, including a prohibition of operating within a mile of a brick-and-mortar establishment.

Despite some reservations, the City Council approved the pilot program on a 5-2 vote, with Mayor Jimmy Matta and Councilmember Sofia Aragon against. 

The businesses need more time, Matta said at the March 15 meeting, arguing for a 20-day delay to gather more feedback from the impacted businesses.

“Clearly there’s a disconnect somewhere with small businesses, a lack of understanding,” Matta said. “I just don’t know what it is. I don’t know how much outreach was done by the city, by Discover Burien.”

Councilmembers in favor of the bill argued that no other businesses were given the opportunity to shut out their competition.

“The city belongs to everyone who works here, lives here and comes and enjoys our town here,” said Councilmember Cydney Moore. “I don’t think anyone has any more right to exist here as a business owner than others.”

The businesses that signed the petition to stop the food truck ordinance are largely owned by people of color, and to cut them out of the conversation would fly in the face of Burien’s commitment to equity, Aragon said.

“I think it’s really important to walk the talk. We talk about the community, we talk about the demographics here in Burien, and this is an opportunity to exercise inclusion and have the conversation with people, who, for whatever reason, weren’t included,” Aragon said.

The Burien City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday.