The Backwards State of Palm Desert's Food Truck Laws

There may be no more harmful phrase than "the good old days."

It's a proclamation spoken by those fooled by the nostalgia myth, trying desperately to hang onto a time when they felt safe. It's an attempt to recapture lost innocence, but by doing so, sacrifice the progress everyone else has made. It's dangerous. (Even the Bible says it's bad.) It has led to the passage of hateful laws, and kept medicine from the hands of the sick.

And in the city of Palm Desert, the concept is being used to keep the public from experiencing one of the great culinary pleasures of the past decade: Food trucks.

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On September 3rd, the Palm Desert City Council considered a new ordinance that's been proposed regarding food trucks. (More accurately, the council got together and decided to put a pin in the issue and come back to it later.) The ordinance would restrict trucks to operate in a very specific area of the city. Namely:

The more important part of the ordinance, however, makes it illegal for trucks to be open past 9 p.m. As anyone who's ever dined at a food truck can tell you, those hours just simply do not work.

These are just the latest anti-food truck laws that have been passed in the city. Trucks are also not allowed to operate:

- On roads that contain speed limits of 35 mph or higher;
- Within 750 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant business;
- Within 1,500 feet of a school.

As Casey Dolan from Cactus Hugs points out, the city's more strict on food trucks than on escort services and bathhouses, both of which are allowed to exist 1,000 feet from schools.

"The Coachella Valley might be the last place in America where food trucks are not allowed," Dolan told me. "City leaders have lagged in setting up rules to allow and even woo this burgeoning industry. The regulations, which would prevent food trucks from setting up in what seems like 99% of the city, would pretty much deter any potential food trucks to Palm Desert."

So why does the city hate food trucks?

"These regulations are put in place because of fear and the power of the current brick-and-mortar establishments to influence city leaders," said Dolan. "Getting into the restaurant business is very costly. A food truck allows 'the small guy' to have a chance to break into the industry. The regulations in Palm Desert do not allow for that to happen."

It's the classic scenario of those in power attempting to rig the game so they remain in power. And just how are they rigging said game? Besides the above-mentioned archaic rules that are continually being put in place -- seriously, 9 p.m. curfew? -- they're making it nearly impossible for food trucks to attain permits even if they were able and willing to follow the regulations.

"In order to operate with a food permit," a regional food truck owner who wishes to remain anonymous told me, "a truck has to be associated with a commissary."

Commissaries, in this case, are indoor spaces where the truck's equipment and supplies are stored. In addition, "Trucks need to be stored indoors to protect them from the weather, theft, vandalism, etc." Brick-and-mortar restaurants can serve this purpose, if a relationship has been built. But most often, it's large indoor spaces that are rented out to trucks.

The cost is roughly $200 a month, which isn't bad when compared to the $800 a month price that a commissary in L.A. generally runs. But when you throw that on top of the cost of a year-round permit in the desert ($450), and the fact that you simply don't make vast sums of money in the food truck business in the desert (especially when forced to operate in a very regulated area, during very regulated hours), the cost of putting together the business does not equal the money coming in.

And that's if you ignore the other, bigger problem with operating a food truck in the Valley: They are no commissaries left.

"There are currently no available commissaries in this valley," said the anonymous owner. "And the people in the Indio office told me they would not allow vehicles to commissary away from the Valley."

Basically, the city wants to live in a world without food trucks, and they're going to do everything they can to achieve it. Maybe one day they'll see the promise of food trucks and will rewrite their laws. But in the meantime, if you live out there and desperately want to get into the food truck business, maybe try working on something a little simpler first. Like, say, developing cold fusion.

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