Despite progress, some worried new food truck rules could be too restrictive
In response to strong community interest, food trucks will likely make their way into downtown Rochester this summer. That much we know so far.
Where they will be allowed to set up, how strict the regulations will be and how many vendors will come on board — that all remains to be seen.
Last week, the city council discussed the issue for the first time since survey results were released showing overwhelming public support for food trucks. The consensus: There's a place for them downtown.
"I am open to the idea if it can be done safely," Council Member Mark Bilderback later told me in an email. Bilderback represents Rochester's Fourth Ward, which covers the downtown area.
It's now up to the council to work with the various stakeholders involved to devise a new set of regulations that will replace the city's current ordinance, which bans food trucks from operating on public streets downtown.
Early into the process, though, there are already concerns that those responsible for developing news rules have no interest in making substantives changes.
"There will be a lot of desire to put strict rules on food truck allowances in an attempt to bring a very limited vision of 'food truck culture' to Rochester," said Council Member Michael Wojcik in an email to the city clerk's office. "I think this could kill that very food truck culture before it even gets going."
Wojcik — who has advocated for a revised ordinance since last summer when a pizza truck was squeezed, albeit temporarily, from downtown — said he would recommend "very liberal and less restrictive" rules in the beginning, leaving room to address potential issues as they arise.
"Strangling food truck entrepreneurship before it finds its footing serves nobody," he said, noting that a new ordinance won't have any impact if trucks are pushed too far away from heavily-trafficked pedestrian areas.
Derrick Chapman, owner of Twisted Barrel Wood Fired Pizza, sets up his food trailer at various public and private events around town. He told me he would like to see mobile vendors included in the development of the ordinance.
"I don't want to see the ordinance so restrictive or unappealing it kills it before it begins," he said. "Things such as pushing them to the edge of downtown or fees so high it doesn't make sense to purchase the license."
Chapman said, even with all the buzz around food trucks, he doesn't expect that many vendors will apply for a permit at the beginning.
He also sought to clear up any misconceptions that food trucks are unregulated and that there is an increased risk of food borne illness. Mobile food units are "inspected the same as a brick and mortar restaurant," he said.
The Rochester Downtown Alliance has not — and will not — take a stance on food trucks. Instead, the organization is encouraging stakeholders to share their "thoughts and realities with the city council."
"We definitely have stakeholders that are against it, for it and in the middle," said Jenna Bowman, RDA's executive director. She said the decision not to take a side was made last summer by the group's board.
I reached out to a half dozen restaurants, but all declined to comment on the record. One business owner, who is not opposed to food trucks, provided some insight into why: "If I were against it, I'd never say so. People would hate me."
One downtown restaurant that has publicly spoken out against food trucks is zpizza, which has a location in the Shops at University Square.
"I don't feel like the trucks and downtown brick-and-mortar businesses are even on the same playing field," owner Deb VonWald told the P-B last summer. "I have secured a downtown location for seven years. I pay special district taxes. I pay an exorbitant amount of rent. I also pay to take care of the building I'm in. For a food truck to be able to outfit a truck and poach business wherever they can talk somebody into letting them be on their property is really frustrating."
Other restaurants, like Victoria's Ristorante & Wine Bar, don't see mobile food vendors as a threat. In a recent interview with KTTC, manager Ryan Tator said it could be beneficial to have more late-night food options downtown.
"We have a set and established clientele," he said. "I don't think we're going to have them running off to food trucks so regularly that it'll hurt our business."
Some of the possible locations being discussed for food trucks include Second Avenue SW south of Second Street, as well Central Park (both Mayor Ardell Brede and City Council President Randy Staver expressed support for the latter location; however, Wojcik commented the park is the "location somebody who would not eat at a food truck would pick").
The council is expected to take up the issue again on March 21. But before that happens, we encourage you to join us for an informal conversation on food trucks this Wednesday evening at Forager Brewery.
About Sean Baker: Sean is the founder and editor of the Med City Beat. Under his direction, the site has transitioned from a small news blog to one of the most widely-read publications in the city. Prior to launching the site in 2014, Sean spent about two years producing television news in Green Bay and Rochester. His office is above a brewery, so please excuse any typos. Twitter.
(Cover photo: File / The Med City Beat)