Connecting state and local government leaders

An App for Citizens (or Health Inspectors) Frustrated With Finding Food Trucks

A food truck parked near the Denver City-County Building.

A food truck parked near the Denver City-County Building. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

In an effort to resolve a government health code problem, they also found a way to empower businesses and citizens.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of four contributed articles on the Government Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator program in Colorado, highlighting four teams’ efforts to find new approaches to vexing public policy issues. You can learn more about the program from Route Fifty’s original article on the topic,In Government, ‘Failure Is Just an Opportunity to Learn

DENVER — A lawyer, an engineer, an airport manager, and a law student walk into a bar. It sounds like the beginning of a great joke, but it actually happened this summer when these three employes from the City and County of Denver and one University of Colorado, Boulder law student were assigned the task of fixing a problem in the LoDo neighborhood in Denver.

LoDo, or Lower Downtown, is located in the heart of downtown Denver and is home to many bars, clubs, restaurants, marijuana shops, food trucks, special events, vendors and residents. When these worlds collide—and they often do—the result is headaches and safety concerns for everyone involved. Denver’s departments of Environmental Health and Excise and License tasked our team with finding a solution that would help to balance residential life with the existing thriving bar, restaurant, vendor, sports and club scenes in LoDo so that all parties could happily co-exist and continue to grow and thrive.

“There are several opportunities to make a difference here,” Denver Chief Performance Officer Dave Edinger told our team during a brainstorming session. “We just don’t know exactly what those are.” Realizing the incredible breadth of our problem statement, our team took a divide-and-conquer approach to the initial phase of research, based on our individual interests in different topics.

Ori, the CU law student, and Karen, the public works engineer, opted to focus on food trucks while Assistant City Attorney Emily and I, Gilly, the airport manager, focused on public safety and noise issues.

We learned during those first two weeks of intense research that many of the LoDo stakeholders could easily describe their pain points with the area. The throngs of weekend bar-goers that flooded the streets, intoxicated and hyped-up, deeply concerned the Denver Police Department and Denver Health Paramedic Division, who responded to the fights and medical emergencies that resulted from such a crowd. The peddlers who gathered on the sidewalks in front of Coors Field to hawk peanuts and sports-themed fidget spinners frustrated Coors Field management because they impeded pedestrian traffic and created safety concerns. The noise thumping out of hefty roof-top bar sound systems drove tired LoDo residents nuts. The food trucks parked outside of open restaurants, tempting away would-be diners with novelty foods, annoyed LoDo restaurant owners. By week five of the GELA program, we had plenty of input about the problem, but little idea about how to solve any of it, especially in a customer-focused, entrepreneurial way.

After weeks of research, we realized as a team that issues like noise and rowdy bar patrons, while important to address, were not solvable in a nine-week program. We needed a problem substantial enough to actually be considered a problem, but small enough that we could actually impact it with our solution.

Not wanting to give up on food trucks, we met with Maggie, a public health inspector whose sole job is inspecting Denver’s food trucks for safe food handling and sanitation. She told us that almost 20 percent of food trucks received a critical health violation in 2016 compared to 4 percent of brick-and-mortar restaurants, and that many food trucks actively evade health inspectors, or go months past their annual inspection due dates because inspectors cannot locate them. This isn’t because inspectors don’t try to locate the trucks; Maggie spends eight hours a week on Twitter and Facebook looking up posted food truck locations so that she can intercept them for an inspection, a method that only works with food trucks who choose to engage on social media.

Furthermore, we learned that cities like Chicago, who noticed this issue and responded by requiring trucks to buy and use expensive, invasive active GPS monitoring devices, saw a corresponding stall in growth in their food truck scene. While it wasn’t specific to LoDo, we knew as a group that the problem was the lack of less invasive, reliable, food truck tracking systems.

“What if we were able to track food trucks using PocketGov?” mused Ori, early one morning during a group brainstorming session. This stroke of inspiration ultimately led to our solution—being able to track food truck locations on a city government-sponsored application called PocketGov. The idea addressed the needs of the inspectors by allowing them to see where food trucks were located with the desire of food trucks to not be actively tracked by GPS. The public could also see where the food trucks were operating, giving food trucks a free advertising platform.

Food trucks would log into the PocketGov application, ping their location with their phones or iPads, and operate as usual. When they were done, they would sign out of their location and disappear from the map. Karen named the feature Mobile Munch and Emily recommended that we turn it into regulation so that all food trucks would have to comply. The director of PocketGov development confirmed that the tracker could easily be rolled into the building of the native PocketGov phone application and that there would be no cost to our sponsoring departments or the food truck operators. Every executive we spoke with seemed excited about the idea.

Voluntary acceptance of Mobile Munch within the food truck community remains the biggest unknown. We were able to conduct interviews with several food truck operators and roll their input into our vision of Mobile Munch, including the ability to interface with Twitter and Facebook for easy, one-stop social media status updates. But without the time to conduct a full-scale pilot of the feature and conduct focused meetings with big players in the food truck scene, we can tout the benefits of Mobile Munch only from a government perspective. That doesn’t mean Mobile Munch isn’t wholly necessary from a food safety standpoint, it just means it will take some more time before it is the totally customer-focused solution of which we dreamed.

So, a lawyer, an engineer, an airport manager, and a law student walk into a bar. They realize instead that they’re hungry for Polish food and gluten-free cupcakes, so they leave to locate the nearest food truck.

Gillian “Gilly” Hulac is an airport operations officer at Denver International Airport.

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