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December 01, 2023

Fishtown food trucks can stay for now after City Council vote on bill to ban them is delayed

What to do about the late-night vendors at Girard and Frankford avenues has divided the neighborhood's residents and business owners

Business Food Trucks
Fishtown Food Trucks StreetView/Google Maps

Girard and Frankford in Fishtown avenues is one of Philly's top late-night spots for food trucks. A bill in City Council would prohibit the trucks from operating on a two-block stretch of Girard Avenue.

The fate of the late-night food trucks that set up at Fishtown's busiest intersection remains in limbo — at least for the time being — after City Council tabled a bill that would ban them from a two-block stretch around Girard and Frankford avenues.

Lined with bars and restaurants that draw crowds on weekends, the intersection is a hotspot for food trucks with operators capitalizing on the hungry bar hoppers and after-hours revelers leaving spots that closed their kitchens earlier in the night.

The proposed ordinance, which had been scheduled to be voted on Thursday, was introduced by 1st District Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents part of Fishtown. If it passes, it would prohibit all street vendors from operating on Girard Avenue between Leopard and Shackamaxon streets, an area covering both sides of the intersection with Frankford Avenue.

Among Fishtown residents, the idea of banning food trucks appears not to be a popular one, and on Thursday, Squilla's chief of staff, Anne Kelly said in an email the vote on the bill was was delayed because it lacked the support of residents in the neighborhood.

During a Nov. 14 virtual meeting of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, 113 people were polled — 102 opposed the bill to ban the food trucks and 11 supported it. The points of opposition were outlined in a letter to Squilla, drafted by FNA leaders, that asked the councilman to withdraw his legislation. 

Critics called the ban "limited in scope" and were concerned it would push food trucks onto adjacent residential streets. Some even feel the foot traffic created by food trucks make the neighborhood safer after midnight, and others believe the city should use existing regulations to find a solution before adding new ones, the letter reads.

It's possible the bill could be amended, and it could still be voted on before the end of the year, Kelly said. City Council's final two meetings this year are Dec. 7 and Dec. 14. If the bill doesn't go to a vote at either meeting, it would need to be reintroduced after the new council forms in January.

Several times in the last decade, Fishtown business owners have attempted to get the city to oust the food trucks at Girard and Frankford Avenues. Their chief complaints are that vendors illegally park on Girard Avenue and generate trash that customers leave on streets. They also say the food trucks drive business away from brick-and-mortar restaurants in the vicinity and fuel unruly conduct during the early morning hours.

Supporters of the food trucks contend they're a hallmark of Fishtown being a destination neighborhood, a point they emphasized to Squilla during a hearing on his legislation in October. Vendors argue the trucks meet a demand for 3 a.m. cravings and provide livelihoods to small business owners, some of whom have used the food truck scene as a springboard to open storefronts in the area.

The intersection of Girard and Frankford is one of the few places in the city with a thriving food truck scene later than midnight, but the trucks aren't supposed to operate during those hours on city property. Philadelphia code already prohibits vendors from doing business on streets and sidewalks between midnight and 7 a.m. Enforcement of this law is spotty and many of the food truck vendors in Fishtown don't abide by it.

In years past, the Department of Licenses and Inspections worked with police to issue warnings and citations to the Fishtown food trucks. The issue last came to a head in 2016, when vendors were fined for reasons including expired licenses or having no licenses at all. The food truck operators considered seeking a variance to extend their operating hours past midnight, but the lack of consistent enforcement has enabled them to stay later without a formal change.

Fishtown District, the local business association, tried the same approach in September, before Squilla's bill was introduced, distributing warning notices to trucks that city inspectors would be coming the next weekend to issue citations.

"I was told that the vendors, to a person, 'laughed' and kept working," Fishtown District executive director Marc Collazzo said in his testimony supporting the bill. "We have been unable to get regular overtime hours for the inspectors to keep coming, so we now come to this step."

Squilla has said his ordinance was written as a solution to the complaints primarily originating from Fishtown District members.

"Working with the community, the neighbors and the residents on the street and the business improvement district, we felt the only way left forward was to eliminate (the food trucks) on that stretch and they can go anywhere else throughout the area," Squilla told FOX29 in October.

Collazzo said the brick-and-mortar businesses face higher costs, taxes and neighborhood fees that food trucks don't bear. In an email Thursday, he rejected the suggestion that the proposed ordinance is "anti-food truck," and Collazzo said the business association would consider establishing a designated area for food trucks that would charge operators a fee, which would be used to pay for trash collection and public safety. 

In his testimony supporting the bill, Collazzo listed 31 eateries that he said can serve the late-night Fishtown crowds. Just two of them, McDonald's and Humpty Dumplings, are open past 1 a.m. The bars in the area shut down at 2 a.m. and close their kitchens earlier than that. The recent closure of the 7-Eleven on Girard near SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line station removed another late night option. That lot is being turned into an apartment building, one of several being developed in the area.

"We await word from Councilman Squilla on next steps as it is our understanding that the bill is not being withdrawn," Collazzo said after the legislation was tabled Thursday. "It is our hope and expectation that the bill will move forward for a vote and final approval."

The complexity of the the issue is illustrated by Sean Kong-Quee, an owner of Calle Del Sabor, at 34 W. Girard Avenue. He said the storefront he and his business partner opened would not survive if they didn't also continue to operate their food truck.

"My partner has one opinion. I have another. He sees the other food trucks as unfair competition because the other trucks sit there and a lot of them are not licensed to begin with. He figures it's not fair to him," Kong-Quee said Friday. "He's put down his money, rented the storefront, pays in terms of licenses, taxes and insurance. You have operators out there who don't have that kind of overhead."

Kong-Quee understands that perspective, but he also thinks the food truck scene has uplifted the whole area and plays a role in bringing people to the bars.

"When I first started, it was a dump. Nobody walked around this place at that hour of the night, but now you have a vibrant nightlife, right here, because of the fact that the trucks are out there, so it's a double-edged sword," Kong-Quee said. "It's been going on so long that it's kind of an attraction. It's more of an attraction than just trucks out there."

If the bill passes this year, it would need to be signed by Mayor Jim Kenney. A mayor's spokesperson on Thursday, did not give an indication whether or not Kenney supports the bill.