Food for Thought

During the January 3rd City Council meeting food trucks was the most discussed topic of the evening.  Cities across the country are seeing a rise in food trucks and have had or are having the same discussion Lowell will take on.  Do food trucks help cities progress or hurt local restaurants and economy due to their transient nature?  How will licensing and regulations be enforced?  More importantly, can a compromise be found satisfying all parties involved?

Why Food Trucks?  Why Now?
In the past 10 years what is offered in the way of fast food has changed dramatically.  No longer is McDonald’s one of few options.  Places like Noodles & Company provide new fast food options targeting those wanting something quick with more of a mature feel.  

The concept of food trucks is not new.  Chuck wagons date back to the 1800s and could be called the start of the traveling food option.  Those who are old enough remember hearing the ice cream truck’s tunes each day during the summer as it made its rounds.  People are familiar with seeing vehicles selling pizza, fries, cotton candy, elephant ears, and other items often deemed “fair food”.  Bigger cities are host to hot dog vendors on street corners looking for hungry patrons on the go.  

Most food trucks focus on a specialty.  Be it gourmet burgers or specialty artisan pizzas these restaurants on wheels continue to gain popularity.  They also have a following.  If popular enough they’re like a rock band with groups of people following them from city to city for a meal.  With the help of social media customers know of their upcoming schedule.

Today’s on-the-go society tends to want more choices and an ease of finding them.  If a food truck is located at a kids’ sporting event it’s easy for a family to grab a bite to eat before practice or a game.  Food trucks also offer something different to eat during a quick lunch hour.  A rise in breweries and wine bars without a food option have led to a pairing of this mobile food option with these drinking establishments.  Ryan Stoepker of New Union Brewery states, “Our specialty is beer and theirs is food, allowing us each to focus on our strengths.”  He also sees a benefit to the community.  “Additionally, food trucks have followings and when they are openly welcomed by breweries and towns they allow for the towns they visit to draw people into that town for the evening that wouldn’t have come to the town otherwise.”

There are even newer trends with food trucks being seen.  Big food truck rallies are planned where dozens of vehicles sell food.  Sometimes it’s just food and no entertainment.  These traveling food options are also starting to be used at wedding receptions replacing a traditional sit down meal.  

Not only have food trucks been growing in popularity across the county, they have become popular in West Michigan as well over the years.  Many cities across the state have set up rules and regulations for these moving businesses.  They often started with strict rules and have since made it easier for food trucks to do business within their city after finding they were a benefit rather than a hindrance.  An online article from 2016 on the Small Biz Survival website indicates food trucks have the ability to be a positive change for small cities.  Closer to home some communities in the Lansing area had the food truck debate last year.  

Schmohz’s Brewing Company on Patterson in Grand Rapids has food truck The Twisted Mitten on site to offer food for customers Friday and Saturday evenings.  Beer engineer Chas Thompson says, “We do not have a kitchen.  It was our most economical solution.” in response to why Schmohz decided to work with a food truck.    

Rules and Regulations
Those who own and operate food trucks must go through licensing and inspections similar to their brick and mortar cousins.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) states food trucks fall under the special transitory food unit category.  In addition to a license food trucks must also be inspected by the health department twice a year.  Results of health inspections for food establishments can be searched for on Sword Solutions’ website, although the most recent records available stop sometime in 2016.  Additionally food truck are subject to operational permits in cities where they do business.  The fee charged varies widely and could be under $100 up to over $2,000 annually.  

Lauren D’Angelo, along with her mother Mindy D’Angelo own and operate the Patty Matters food truck which will celebrate its second birthday this spring.  When asked about the rules and regulations for operating a food truck Lauren D’Angelo says, “If a food truck doesn’t get their inspections every year, they can loose their food license. Every truck also has to have someone who has their Servsafe Certificate (food handlers license) as this is a requirement.   We also have to have a sales license for the state of Michigan, as well most food trucks are heavily insured.”   Patty Matters travels 5-7 days a week.  Fans on their Facebook page can find a weekly schedule of their location.  Many trucks have such a following that people go wherever they go and end up checking out an event or city where they’re located for the evening.  

Some trucks work locally to source food used to prepare menu items.  These entrepreneurs are small businesses and generally not a spin-off of larger chain restaurants.  Food trucks are on the move and continue to gain popularity.  With this, cities, especially those with lower populations, are faced with how to change with the times while keeping established restaurants from feeling slighted.  

Multiple Views, Same Situation
Food trucks are a part of today’s culture.  It’s not looking like they’re a fad which will go away after 15 minutes of fame.  On the surface the question is whether or not food trucks should be allowed to do business within Lowell city limits.  The major argument for this idea is more food options and showing others our community is progressive and growing with today’s trends while those who oppose have concerns about an outside business making money without paying taxes to the city..  

Looking deeper reveals non-food businesses in the city may welcome food trucks as a way to bring new visitors to the community who will see retail shops and want to make a purchase, as indicated by Marty Chambers of Red Barn Consignments & Antiques during city council discussion on the matter.  Small businesses in small towns rely on word of mouth and increased foot traffic near their business to draw in new customers.  

When Lowell’s First Look asked fans on Facebook to fill out a questionnaire on the topic 224 responses were recorded.  An overwhelming 208 people stated they are in favor of allowing food trucks into the city.  There were 10 not in favor of food trucks and six who selected “maybe”.  Lowell resident Candice Fleszar supports the idea.  “Having food trucks may indicate that our city is flexible to different types of businesses and visitors. A great message to share.”  Those in favor still acknowledged competition for established restaurants and the lack of city revenue by way of taxes as a con to the situation but felt the positives carried more weight.  

Jacob Stever, who does not like the idea wrote the following comment in response to our survey, “We have establishments like Larkins and sneakers [sic]. Softee cream [sic] for nearly 50 years. Not fair to them.”  Blair Cahoon, owner of Keiser’s Kitchen, has spoken out against the transient trucks.  As a business owner in the community for 70 years his fear is losing business to increased competition.   Countering this some members of the community have said competition would be a good thing and those seeking food trucks are not the clientele wanting a sit down meal.  

Residents of the community have long wanted more restaurant choices.  With a bigger selection a long wait at any one establishment is less likely to happen.  Local residents and those from other communities would be more likely to visit not for the sake of eating at a particular restaurant but for an experience in Lowell where dining is included.  

In recent years it has not been uncommon for a food truck to open a brick and mortar business in a city where it’s well received.  Likewise some brick and mortar restaurants have added a food truck option in order to be mobile and attract a wider customer base.   Some universities and non-restaurant businesses have also opened food trucks to spice up their customer’s experience.

The Next Steps
It will be up to the city to determine the fate of food trucks, although it’s unlikely a total ban will happen with numerous residents in favor of this food option in addition to council members entertaining further discussion on the matter.  

When asked when the city council would take up the issue of food trucks again, Council Member Alan Teelander deferred to the city manager and chief of police. “It is Mike Burns and Steve Bukala’s  job to look into the food truck ordinance rules as they are set and suggest any changes to the Council,” he said in an emailed response to Lowell’s First Look. “Our job on the council is to consider the suggestions/counsel of our management team, set the rules and then empower those we hire to do their jobs.”

City Manager Mike Burns hopes to bring more information on the issue to one of the February meetings.  “We have pulled other ordinances from other Communities and I worked on this issue when I was in Fenton so I am pretty familiar with it.” he said in an email correspondence on the topic.  

The fate of food trucks is still unwritten but the discussion will continue.  The city should discuss the cost of a permit, location(s) where vehicles selling food are allowed, frequency, and duration as well as other pros and cons to adding this concept within city limits.  An ordinance change or addition will represent eventual rules and regulations.

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