'Cut from the puzzle?’ Food truck owners who helped revitalize Seattle park feel slighted | KNKX

'Cut from the puzzle?’ Food truck owners who helped revitalize Seattle park feel slighted

Jul 29, 2019

Occidental Square begs you to stick around. Matthew Lewis says his food truck is part of the reason why.

"It didn't look like this when we first started," Lewis said, walking past brightly colored chairs, lights strung between trees, and the glass facade of restaurants.

It used to be common to see drugs, crime and people sleeping on the street in Occidental Square, a red-brick plaza blocks away from Seattle’s original downtown in Pioneer Square.

"A lot of the powers that be around here brought trucks in to help mitigate that issue," said Lewis, who sells New Orleans-style food through his truck, Where Ya At Matt. "And that would clean up the spot a little, so to speak." 

The strategy is hardly unique. Cities across the Puget Sound have enlisted food trucks to revitalize neglected public spaces. As the industry has grown in popularity — from a handful of trucks to several hundred in the past decade — so has the potential for driving out crime, keeping out the homeless, and incentivizing business. 

Before Occidental Square was the focus of so-called "re-programming" efforts, the plaza in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood was mostly empty and surrounded by parking lots, as shown in a photo from February 2015.
Credit Courtesy of the Downtown Seattle Association

The city has long struggled to rewrite the reputation of Occidental Square as a place once founded on vice. Brothels and dope parlors once filled the surrounding area as far back as the late 19th century. More recent concerns include drugs and people who sleep outside there.

Then, in 2016, a new plan was hatched.

The city put the Downtown Seattle Association in charge of driving foot traffic to the plaza. Under a five-year agreement, the business advocacy group was given $900,000 to fund changes, which translated into games, patio seating, special events and food trucks.

The number of observed visitors in the park steadily rose over the next two years, according to DSA reports. More people began to see Occidental Square as a safe and friendly space, and crime and people sleeping on the sidewalks started to fade.

"I think we saw a significant change in the park and the opportunity for it to be inviting and welcoming to everyone, and food trucks were definitely a part of that," said Jennifer Casillas, the vice president of public space operation and events for DSA.

It helped, too, that Occidental Square was going through a business revival. One of the country’s largest timberland management companies, Weyerhaeuser, built their headquarters on what used to be an adjacent parking lot in 2016. 

Hundreds of new employees soon flooded the park. Restaurants flocked to absorb the new lunch crowd — but not all of them appreciated the food trucks.

Matthew Lewis poses for a photo in Occidental Square on Wednesday, June 5. Along with other food truck owners, Lewis was enlisted to help drive out homelessness and crime in Occidental Square with his New Orleans-style mobile restaurant, Where Ya At Matt.
Credit Max Wasserman / KNKX

Joe Bisacca looked out the windows of the Mexican restaurant he opened in 2016, Zócalo, and watched as the lines swelled in front of the food trucks. Meanwhile, the barstools and spacious booths in his restaurant were largely empty.

“It was to the point where we had to rethink staying or not,” Bisacca said.

What frustrated Bisacca, beyond dwindling lunch crowds, was that food trucks stood in the way of his vision for Occidental Park — a European-style alleyway where people sip wine, admire art and grab a meal, day or night.

Bisacca says pushing out crime required a full-time business presence; the six food trucks alternated vending in the space five days a week, and they were only open for a couple hours each day.

“So it's like, I'm sitting here doing all this work actively trying to make this square better and they're like raiders,” Bisacca said. “They come in and take the business and leave and we're left holding down the fort.”

It wasn’t just Bisacca. Other businesses expressed similar frustrations, and they successfully fought to limit the number of food trucks in the space from four to two in the summer of 2017.

When things didn’t change, Bisacca says he and other business owners went back to the Downtown Seattle Association with an ultimatum: it’s either us or the trucks.

Come May 2018, no food trucks were allowed to vend in the space except for special events, such as concerts. Casillas, who was in charge of permitting food trucks in Occidental Square, says it was a combination of factors — not just restaurant complaints — that led to the association’s decision.

“At the very beginning we knew they weren’t going to be a permanent fixture of the park,” Casillas. “They were simply an amenity that helped to change the landscape of the park and the use of the park.”

Crowds gather to watch a televised sporting event and play ping pong in Occidental Square. Both amenities, along with food trucks, were brought to the public space to help drive out crime, prevent people from sleeping outside, and incentivize business.
Credit The Downtown Seattle Association

A spokesperson for the company that managed food trucks in Occidental Square, Curbside Provisions, says it was made clear to food trucks that their presence wasn’t guaranteed.

Still, Lewis — one of the original food truck owners in the square — says the decision wasn’t fair.

“You take chances. You build business. You show that it can be done,” Lewis said, “and then you’re the one that’s cut from the puzzle? It’s like, well, thanks.”

It's not just Occidental Square: many food truck owners say that finding a spot to vend is a continual challenge in King County.

In the past year alone, 60 food trucks opened in King County, according to King County Public Health permitting data. That number doesn't include even more trucks that opened, but have since closed, in that time frame.

The surge in competition has pushed some trucks into surrounding counties, where they have to pay new permitting fees. That can be a difficult cost for these already low-margin businesses, according to the Washington State Food Truck Association.

The group has tried to push state lawmakers in Olympia to enact a more uniform system for permits, such as for food and fire safety. Director Lori Johnson says they plan on continuing the effort next winter. 

For now, Casillas, of DSA, says the reality of owning of food truck is that you might have to move. 

“I think it is a hard place to be in,” Casillas said. “I know there could be a food truck spot and then construction comes in and it’s gone, and I don’t think they always get fair warning on that.”

Lewis acknowledges that food trucks are mobile, and therefore easier to move than a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Still, Occidental Square was a learning moment for him. He says he wouldn't say no if a similar opportunity presents itself, but he’ll ask more questions.

Editor’s note: This story was reported in collaboration with Agueda Pacheco Flores, who covers arts and culture for the Seattle-based news organization Crosscut. Read Crosscut’s story, which covers the challenges facing people in the food truck industry, such as costs, crime and competition.  

This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of  Zócalo, Thursday, August 1, 2019 3:58 p.m.