If Lisa Goodman and Doug Kress have their way, buying a chef-made taco or other portable nosh from a downtown Minneapolis street vendor is about to get a whole lot easier.

The City Council member and her staffer are leading the charge to untangle and rewrite an unruly jumble of city ordinances governing food carts. Other cities, from New York City to Austin, Texas, to Portland, are experiencing an explosion of curbside fare. But a tangle of outdated regulations and attitudes -- along with, let's face it, some less-than-cooperative weather -- has prevented the trend from taking off in the state's largest city. Goodman does not see the required changes as insurmountable.

"It's one of those it's-always-been-this-way kinds of things, coupled with the people who think that if they eat a chestnut off a street cart they're going to get salmonella," she said. "It's kind of like the people who think you can't bring a dog into a restaurant because they're dirty and evil, but service dogs are OK. That doesn't make sense, because then it's clearly not a health issue, it's an attitude issue."

Pertinent state health codes are another matter. To that end, Kress is working with the city's intergovernmental agencies to unsort and address the state code issues. "The big one that came up is that a vendor is limited to 21 days in any one spot annually," he said. "Our idea is that we want mobile units in spots where their clients will come to know they will be. If you move your location often, then you also risk losing your regular customers."

Location, location, location

Another thorn? Private-sector territorial issues. "I'm sensitive about the competition issue, but not that sensitive," said Goodman. "If you talk to most restaurant owners, they all say that more is better. Still, let's say you're a Pizza Lucé. You're paying rent and paying taxes. Do you want Rick's Pizza out on the sidewalk in front of your restaurant?" Goodman said she's leaning towards requiring cart owners to have a bricks-and-mortar location with a commercial kitchen somewhere in the city, a proposal that isn't too far out of line from existing state regulations governing licensed kitchens.

Another major issue is preserving the public right of way; carts cannot block pedestrian sidewalk traffic. Goodman doesn't think that opening up parking meters for street-parked vehicles is a viable solution, either. "We're leaning towards 'No' on that one," she said. "We don't want people making money where other people could be parking."

Regulating cart size and appearance is another critical matter. In the past few years, food vendor vehicles have blossomed far beyond the no-frills hot-dog push carts that have been Nicollet Mall staples in summers past. "There are cool, hyper-designed food carts in use all over the country," said Goodman. "They just have to fit within our parameters for sidewalk use."

Once the legalities are out of the way, the city's next step will be encouraging a diverse vendor profile, one that would go beyond the current hot-dogs-and-potato-chips mix. Goodman cited tenants at the Midtown Global Market as ideal candidates. "The woman who runs the fabulous bakery, she could have a little cart on the mall, that could be a workable thing," she said.

The baker in question, Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart, agrees. "That's so funny, because we were just talking about doing an ice cream cart for the summer, and looking at different carts online," she said. "We need to get a piece of that market, sell some delicious things and make some money. Food carts are totally on their way; they're going to be huge."

The Downtown Improvement District, a privately funded organization created to enhance downtown viability, has been tapped to research a dozen or so possible food cart locations on and near Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall. No specific sites have been identified yet.

Sooner rather than later

Goodman is hoping that if all goes as planned, downtowners could begin to see carts appear as early as May, but bureaucratic wheels don't turn quite that fast. "Ideally, we'd like to say April 12 [opening day at Target Field], but that's a little early," she said. Next step in the process: The public is invited to put in its two cents' worth on the topic at a Regulatory Services and Public Works Committee hearing, scheduled for March 22 at 1:30 p.m. at City Hall in downtown Minneapolis.

"I don't think an ordinance is going to be in place as a result of that meeting, but we're looking at it as a kickoff for discussion," said Goodman. "Doug and I don't have all the answers. That's why we're collecting feedback to get the conversation started. We'll be looking at August if we don't get on it."

Kress added that the push for sidewalk food carts has a strong civic component. "We're looking for ways to bring people outdoors and support the vitality of our streets," he said. "I have traveled enough to know that, as a city, we're missing some things. The vitality of our streets could be so much more."

Not surprisingly, Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson, co-owners of the Chef Shack, arguably the city's leading street food purveyors, are enthusiastic about the chatter inside City Hall.

"City ordinances change when the public actually speaks up, so this is a step in the right direction to bring about change," said Summer.

"We believe people want to see street vendors in and around the neighborhoods of Minneapolis, just like many cities around the nation, and around the world, for that matter."

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757