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SoBeirut gets an exclusive look at a new law that will launch Beirut’s Food Truck sector
As the clock struck midnight on December 31st Beirutis throughout the capital looked forward to the promises of the new year. While many speculated about the inauguration of a president, a growing number of foodies resolved to cash in on what could be the biggest culinary trend of 2016. Beirut’s first food truck license, which will allow vendors to serve in public spaces, is currently in development and on track to process applications sometime this year. An influx of mobile restaurants could provide fast dining solutions to hurried consumers, introduce new cuisines and serve as an outlet for chefs to experiment with new recipes.
Beirut Governor Ziad Chebib tells SoBeirut that the new law is inspired by popular demand. “Now, many people started asking about permits to do this, to invest in food trucks in Beirut. That’s why we decided to put conditions in order to make this kind of business under the Lebanese law, which doesn’t cover now this field,” said Chebib.
In the past food trucks inside the capital have been restricted to privately owned properties. Although these vendors must also comply with public health regulations, food trucks are still undefined in the law. Despite this legal grey area requests for licenses spiked acutely in 2015. One municipality official with knowledge of the new law spoke on condition of anonymity, stating “We had last year over 20 requests so we thought it’s a new trend. Before, some companies asked us to allow us to put this [food truck] but in a private lot, not on the street. We used to allow them, 'Okay, but don’t make traffic, don’t throw garbage.' But somewhere private, not a public area, but now they are requesting to drive in the street. It's more complicated.”
According to engineer Ghassan Elias, who has assisted Governor Chebib in drafting the law, some entrepreneurs have already applied for the new license while others have sent informal letters of request. “There are, who signed it and gave it in the municipality office, its about 10 demands,” he said, referring to the letters. “But there are several demands that didn’t apply yet, not official, just asking for it. But many people don’t know [about the license] yet.”
As news of the draft law has spread Elias says that requests for mobile vendors have actually dropped due to the health standards imposed by the new licensing regulations. “Instead of increasing they decreased because of these conditions, because these conditions are a little bit high. Not anyone can apply for this, lots of restrictions, lots of conditions,” he adds flipping through a draft of the law. The conditions he refers to were adapted from the European Union model and will likely require many of Beirut’s existing food trucks to make significant upgrades before they can qualify for a mobile license.
For example, eligible trucks must be imported straight from the manufacturer and must have self-contained water, electrical and sewage systems onboard. Additional regulations require that the chef and the cashier be different people, that the serving window is installed facing the sidewalk and that the tuck be parked at least 50 meters from any restaurant.
Although Elias says he is unaware of any opposition to the proposed license the Governor of Beirut acknowledges that increased street congestion is a primary concern in the eyes of the public. “The measures we are taking through this new law, they will be in order to make sure no negative impact to the traffic in the city at all. And you can see it. When you look at the conditions you can see that the traffic is one of the most important issues we are taking into consideration,” attests Chebib.
In order to prevent the food trucks from becoming roadblocks Elias claims that they will not be permitted on main streets such as Hamra or Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael. Instead, side roads will be identified and zoned specifically for mobile vendors. But this presents another problem. The average food truck is intended to be 2.2 meters wide, which will put the vehicle over the line of the average parking spot by nearly half a meter. Therefore, the municipality actually plans to alter the sidewalks by about 40 cm to accommodate the oversized trucks in predetermined areas. These modified parking spots will then be available for rental to the vending company. “This truck, it’s about 18 sq meters so they have to pay yearly about 10% of the cost of 18 sq meters in this area. In Verdun the cost of one meter is about 20,000, inside Karam El Zaytoon it’s about 6,000,” explains Elias.
As the production designer for a recent food truck pop-up at The Junkyard, Petra Abou Sleiman welcomes the new license and the increased competition that could result. “I’m glad that they are working on a law that will help make this easier. Because there are a lot of people with creative and beautiful ideas and there should be easy ways for them to try to implement them without going into big risks and big costs,” says AbouSleiman. She adds that the trucks she worked with are also looking to acquire mobile licenses and she hopes a new fleet of vendors will diversify Beirut’s dining options.
However, meeting the conditions of the new law may inflate overhead expenses and restrict licenses to the franchises that already dominate Lebanon’s restaurant scene. Despite these challenges Elias remains confident that “lots” of entrepreneurs will still be able to break into the market, and soon. “From our side, it will be covered maximum 1 month from the side of the governor. Then it will go to the minister, it will go its way… He’s [the governor is] pressing too much. I think about between 4 and 8 months [until implementation],” Elias declares.
Will Beirut’s food truck sector enrich the city with cheap, fast and interesting cuisine? Or will established chain restaurants proliferate further into the corners of our lives? Can the municipality spice up side roads with mobile vendors? Or will these new zones subtract vital parking spaces and contribute to traffic? 2016 may become the year of the food truck, but only time will tell how the new license will impact the capital.