There are 435 businesses waiting for a spot to put up a street stall or park up a food truck on the city streets, according to council figures.
John O’Neill says he applied to Dublin City Council five years ago, when he started his food business, Once Upon a Thai.
But there’s no sign of getting a spot, he says. “Basically you’re on a list and it’s only when one person pulls out, then you’re up.”
What can be sold where is set in council bylaws, like flowers on O’Connell Bridge or tea and coffee on Sandymount Promenade, or caricatures and portraits on Dame Street.
Spaces for hot-food sellers are limited.
One group of councillors has been talking about whether that should change and the next development plan should encourage more al-fresco selling and eating.
That’s an idea that may, though, run up against opposition from already struggling bricks-and-mortar businesses.
Waiting or Not
At one point while he was waiting, O’Neill decided to park up his bright green food truck in a pub car park in Meath and dish up there.
“Then I got a letter six months into that to say that if I didn’t stop trading I was going to get something like a lotto number of a fine,” O’Neill says.
“I had to apply for planning retention, which cost a couple of grand,” he says.
“The way it works basically, if no one reports you, you’re alright. And if someone reports you, then the council knows about you and then they are going to take action,” he says.
He wants to sell in Dublin, he says, and is surprised he’s been waiting five years now. “Luckily enough I’m not dependent on the business.”
Fred Peretti hasn’t even bothered to apply, he says. “The waiting list is too long. I just thought I would find somewhere else.”
In normal times, he opens up at events and festivals, serving Canadian comfort food of chips smothered in gravy and cheese curds from his truck Lala Poutine.
He’s had his food truck business for nine years, says Peretti, and it’s a shame the situation is as it is. “It is nice to give people variety at lunch.”
How long a wait businesses face depends partly on what they want to sell.
“The numbers on the individual lists vary but as there is a limited number of hot food truck pitches and the licenses are renewable it could take several years to be offered a pitch,” said a council spokesperson.
At the moment, there are four daytime trading pitches in the city where people can sell tea or coffee or hot and cold snacks, and 10 night-time hot-food food-truck pitches, they said.
Peretti says there is one food truck near Camden Street that has been there 20 years. “So it seems to be hard to get a spot.”
In October 2020, Marcus O’Laoire began serving melted-cheese grilled sandwiches from a converted ambulance called the Sambo Ambo.
“It’s been going great. The support has been incredible from people,” he said on Monday on the phone.
“The cost of fixed premises is driving a lot of people towards food trucks,” he says, as a city-centre premises might set you back a quarter of a million quid.
The Sambo Ambo opened first in the Clonsilla Inn car park in the north-west fringes of the city but now operates from the Iveagh Markets in the Liberties.
“We’re working with the Guinness family on this,” O’Laoire says.
There’s a lack of council support, he says. “It’s the main reason that all the food trucks that are popping up are operating in the yard of a pub or the car park of a shop.”
Jason White, the owner of Adventure Catering, which leases out food trucks for events, points to the system that operates in some parts of the United States.
A food truck can park in a designated parking spot, pay the meter and can trade, says White. “Why can’t we operate a system this way?”
Peretti says he would like to see the council make a space available for food trucks.
“I would like to go to Temple Bar or George’s Street. Somewhere around this area with good nightlife,” he says.
Peretti does foresee opposition to this though, he says. “Restaurants wouldn’t want to see that happen.”
Nial Ring, an independent councillor, says the council should first support the restaurants and cafes that pay “rates” to it.
“Particularly around town now when we need to get people back in,” he says.
Rates are what businesses with premises in the city pay to the council, and the money is a big chunk of the council’s budget. (At the moment many businesses have been given a reprieve from paying rates because of the pandemic.)
Restaurants and cafes in the city are struggling at the moment, Ring says. “I would be very reluctant to say, ‘Let’s clear this backlog [of food trucks] and have a free for all.’”
White asks whether restaurants should have a monopoly. “That means they are afraid of the competition.”
Peretti says food trucks focus more on the lunchtime market, which is different. “Most restaurants are open at night.”
“It’s good for people to get out of the office and have something different,” he says.
O’Laoire, who runs the Sambo Ambo, says he would like to see more open discourse between business owners and the council, he says. “And share a common goal for the good of the city.”
Social Democrats Councillor Cat O’Driscoll says her party has talked about the idea of promoting food trucks through the city’s next development plan, which will be in place from 2022 to 2028.
The plan sets out what different parts of the city can be used for, as well as the council’s future goals and visions for how it should grow.
“It comes under the umbrella of what we can do with our spaces,” she says, of the discussion around food trucks.
Covid has taught us that there is nothing wrong with being outside to eat, O’Driscoll says.
Also, food trucks mean small Irish businesses can grow, O’Driscoll says. “We tend to promote large chains when what we should be doing is looking at our […] more local businesses.”