As Kansas City, Kansas, cracks down, the food truck scene fights for a future

One Friday evening last month around 5 p.m., Alan Jaimes got a call from his mother, Leticia, the owner of Angela’s Mexican Food, a food truck.

“She said the cops had showed up,” Jaimes said.

He drove out to 46th Terrace and Parallel Parkway, in Kansas City, Kansas, where for the last three years their truck has been parked most days, serving tacos and quesadillas from afternoon until 11 p.m.

When Jaimes arrived, he said, there were five police cars and three other cars belonging to employees of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. They had come to deliver papers informing Angela’s Mexican Food that it was not allowed to serve past 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on weekends.

“They said it was a countywide thing,” Jaimes said, “and that it had never been legal for food trucks to stay open past 8 p.m.”

That is true — technically. In 2020, the Unified Government eased regulations for mobile and outdoor vending to help small businesses through the pandemic. If you had permission from a property owner, you could park your food truck anywhere in the city and start serving. Two years later, the Unified Government adopted an ordinance extending these “open streets” efforts.

The ordinance clearly states that mobile vendors can’t operate past 7 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on weekends. But that law wasn’tenforced. As The Star reported last year, the intersection of Central Avenue and 18th Street had transformed into a lively hub for Mexican street food, where mobile vendors sold elotes, burritos and raspados until midnight or later.

No more.

“It was brought to the Unified Government’s attention that this ordinance was being violated, so the Unified Government began to engage with mobile vendors in an effort to educate them about the requirements of the ordinance,” said UG spokesperson Krystal McFeders.

McFeders added that no citations have been given out since the “education and enforcement blitz” started.

But sales have taken a hit.

Jaimes said Angela’s Food Truck has employees who haven’t worked in several weeks because the business no longer generates enough revenue to pay them.

“A lot of our customers are construction workers, restaurant workers, and nurses who come in after 8 p.m.,” he said. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls asking if we’re closed permanently because those are the hours they know us for.”

“We’re down 25%,” said Jose Sanchez, owner of Senor Avocado, a food truck that regularly parks at 18th and Central. “Plus, one of our main things we do in the summer is the shaved ice stand, which a lot of people like to come to at night. So those sales will go down, too.”

Edgar Galicia, executive director of the Central Avenue Betterment Association and a vocal proponent of the open streets policy, said the sudden attention to enforcement was the result of Bill Burns having recently been elected to the Unified Government’s Board of Commissioners representing District 2, in which the 18th and Central hub sits.

“My understanding is that he (Burns) had heard from some elderly people in the (18th and Central) neighborhood who didn’t like the mobile vending — these are people who are always against new initiatives that are different from what they’re used to,” Galicia said. “So Burns took the time to look into the law, then got the city and the police involved to shut these businesses down at night.”

Burns did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Though Galicia did not invoke race, the subtext along Central Avenue is never too far from the surface. Historically, this was a neighborhood populated by people of Eastern European ancestry; nowadays, it’s predominantly Hispanic. The longtime elderly residents are more likely to be white; the food trucks serve Mexican food and play norteña music over the speakers.

“These older residents, they’re often upset that the businesses that used to be here many years ago are gone,” Galicia said. “But what they don’t understand is that the reason we lost those businesses is because there was no pipeline here to generate more small businesses and continue the growth. And now we (CABA) have picked it up and are creating that business development through initiatives like this.”

“These mobile vendors are good for the county — they pay taxes, they pay licensing fees, and often they start their own (brick-and-mortar) businesses,” he added. “The old status quo was not working.”

Some KCK mobile vendors have recently begun to … mobilize. One food truck owner has started a petition seeking to revoke the county’s new “restrictive time regulations.” And Galicia said he is asking the public to bring their concerns to the Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday, April 4, at 7 p.m.

They hope there might be room for compromise, or perhaps a more precise tailoring of the regulations. Jaimes said he didn’t see why Angela’s Mexican Food, which is in the process of purchasing the property on which it parks, should have to close early due to neighbor complaints in a separate district miles away.

Sanchez said that if the music is the main concern, he didn’t think the vendors at 18th and Central would have a problem turning down the volume at a certain hour.

“I think a lot of people like what we’re doing over here the way it’s been,” Sanchez said. “We have all these families coming by, a little park to sit in, tacos and Central American food and hot dogs and hamburgers. It’s a place where you can have these cultures coming together.”