Burien restaurants challenge food truck program amid COVID-19 losses

BURIEN, Wash. — As local brick-and-mortar restaurants in Burien continue to struggle due to shutdowns and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, some are moving to keep what they say is unfair competition from food trucks out of the mix.

Burien is expected to approve a yearlong food truck pilot program Monday to determine if the trucks would be good for the city. The program would start in May.

Under the pilot guidelines, the trucks could not park within 50 feet of an existing restaurant without permission.

But two groups representing local restaurants, Empresarios Unidos and Restaurants of Burien, say that isn’t enough. They’re challenging the program, saying the food trucks have unfair advantages and the additional competition will put an even greater strain on restaurants that have already taken huge financial hits.

If location is king, Tortas Locas would seem to have hit the jackpot, located along Burien’s busy Ambaum Boulevard.

But owner Luis Olivera says the pandemic has starved his Mexican restaurant of customers.

“I’ve lost probably 50% of my clientele because everyone wants to eat now home,” Olivera said.

Moreover, he said his mostly Latino customer base has been badly hurt economically.

“And a lot of them got laid off and they don’t have money to eat out,” Olivera said. “Well, now I’m losing a lot of business because of the COVID. Now I have to worry about something else which is the food trucks.”

While the groups say they don’t oppose food trucks, they want the rules to be the same for both fixed and mobile food businesses.

They say truck-based businesses don’t have to pay property leases, property taxes, site maintenance expenses, utilities or large labor costs and aren’t tied to a fixed service area.

“I represent Empresario Unidos, we are small businesses owners,” said Alfredo Covarrubias. He says those business owners, many of them people of color, signed a petition to keep the food trucks out.

“We believe that food trucks will take the money away from the city,” said Covarrubias. “They are going to take jobs and they will affect the restaurants more than the pandemic has done because we’re still in the pandemic.”

Another worry is that trucks from communities outside Burien will make $800 to $1,200 a day solely from lunch business and that money won’t be circulated in the city, while local restaurant owners and their employees spend their money in the area and help support the community.

“Just wait until next year until we, until we all get better,” Olivera said.

Restaurant owners propose one or more of the following:

-Food trucks should either be restricted from operating within a mile of brick-and-mortar restaurants

-Food trucks only be allowed to operate in designated truck-based food zones

-Food trucks would be limited to operate in business zones up to two times per week for no more than four hours with no more than two trucks along two-block area, and not within 600 feet of brick-and-mortar food businesses.

They say the proposed restrictions are based on the same premise that property owners or commercial real estate companies use when deciding whether to lease space to a tenant. Space wouldn’t be leased to a grocery store if there was already one in the same shopping center, for instance.

On its website, the Washington Food Truck Association addresses some of the concerns from restaurant owners, which they say are myths.

The organization says food trucks help draw people to restaurant and shopping areas and increase foot traffic for all surrounding businesses and that food truck businesses “pay all the same business and payroll taxes that brick-and-mortar restaurants pay and generate tax revenue for cities.”

But do food trucks, with much lower costs, have an unfair advantage over traditional restaurants? The association says no. While food trucks have smaller operating costs, they also have much lower sales because they only operate a few hours a day and serve a much smaller number of customers than traditional restaurants do.

A static restaurant can offer larger menus, heated dining rooms, more storage space and can usually stay open in most weather conditions.

The association pointed out on its site that brick-and-mortar business owners have opened food trucks of their own because they’re a good way to market and expand their businesses.

The restaurant owners presented a petition to stop or modify the pilot program at Monday’s virtual city council.

The council is scheduled to revisit the plan on April 5.

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