Balancing public support with trepidation from competing businesses is the meal plan before city government when it comes to food trucks.
The issue was before the Baxter City Council Tuesday in a work session. The council didn’t take action, but did identify a direction. Issues to consider include whether the food trucks will compete with other options, particularly fast food establishments, or whether the people at the various businesses are buying lunch from the food truck when they would have regularly packed their own instead. Another question may be how much should the free market decide where the food dollars should go and how much city government should regulate to protect existing businesses against competition.
Gordon Heitke, city administrator, listed four options for the city council Tuesday. Beyond the stark options of either allowing food trucks to operate without regulation or prohibiting them altogether, the city looked at the ground in between. Staff recommended not allowing food trucks to sell to the general public, but allowing them for use as an outdoor catering service.
With this recommendation, food trucks would be allowed to operate on private property at the request of the property owner. But even this recommendation is not without further question as the Mayor Darrel Olson noted the Westgate Mall owners could request a food truck as the property owner while individual businesses in the mall may object. Either way, staff recommendation was against sales to the general public.
Prairie Bay, which largely started the food truck debate with its Side Dish Mobile Kitchen, asked Baxter to extend its temporary merchant license. The city issued the temporary transient/peddlers license in December and extended it through March. Prairie Bay asked for a month-long extension into June.
Questions for the city included what actually constitutes a food truck and where does a food cart or a hot dog stand fit in the mix. Heitke said the real term may be mobile vending. Heitke said other vendors have expressed interest in mobile operations, so he noted the idea isn’t limited to food.
“There is some interest here that goes even beyond food in terms of mobile vending,” Heitke said.
Baxter and Brainerd are both researching the intricacies and mine fields related to licensing food trucks. The respective city councils expressed concern for traditional and current taxpaying brick and mortar businesses. Prairie Bay also meets that description with its Baxter restaurant.
Council member Jim Klein said he has no problem with a catered event at a private business but didn’t think the food truck should be able to go to an event at a public park.
“I don’t think it should be allowed at any public venue,” Klein said.
Heitke said the city concerns include public safety regarding where food trucks are parked for traffic and competition to an existing business, and visual impacts.
Klein said the language on the ordinance will have to cover many topics as operators will be looking for ways to get around it.
Heitke said if the plan is to prohibit food trucks from selling to the general public, but allow them to sell to a specific business’ employees, customers or guests, it will mean the food truck can’t announce locations via social media. With that scenario, the food truck’s fans wouldn’t be allowed to follow it to different locations.
Council member Mark Cross noted that will mean city staff will have to become Facebook friends with the food truck operators. Council member Todd Holman said he liked the option that allowed the food trucks to be used for outdoor catering.
Olson said after meeting with representatives from the city of Brainerd, it appeared they were hoping Baxter was further along in the process. Olson said places like the Essentia Health-Baxter Clinic represent a new term as a “food desert” without a lot of nearby food options for competition.
“Can we set the permit fee high enough to discourage a lot of people?” Klein asked.
Heitke said the license fee has to reflect the city’s administrative costs.
To throw in another consideration, Cross noted community events such as the Fourth of July bring in vendors from outside the area, one as far away as Miami.
A next step includes looking at a draft ordinance.