The biggest food news in Lexington in 2012 was the emergence of a craft brew scene and a food truck culture determined to gain footing. In January 2013, Lexington’s Blue Grass Food Truck Association returned to LFUCG council chambers to make a plea for a process that would streamline and clarify the operations process for food trucks in Fayette County. In response, Vice Mayor Linda Gorton has formed a working group to address food truck issues and regulations, most of which fell outside the scope of work handled by the Itinerant Merchant Task Force which was formed in April 2011 and is scheduled to report back to LFUCG February 19. The group is chaired by newly-elected council member Shevawn Akers.
Lexington’s food truck community is generally optimistic that the formation of the new group is a positive development.
Bluegrass Food Truck Association director (and group member), Sean Tibbetts says, “We are hopeful the new group will bring progress where the Itinerant Merchant Task Force resulted in restricted operating hours and locations while maintaining the current regulatory burdens. Our hope is that this group will be better enabled to focus on the specific needs of mobile food vendors while still protecting public health and safety.”
Jennifer Bradford and husband Matt Bradford of Bradford BBQ had a busy year in 2012, and expect that some of the hiccups along the way might result in a regulatory response that Lexington has needed. Jennifer says, “We have participated in two Food Truck Blasts and have been active in the brewery rotations, and a Cheapside event for the Fayette County Bar Association.” Their roster of private and corporate events included Picnic with the Pops alongside gigs for Valvoline, Eastern State Hospital, and Big Ass Fans. She says, “our lowest point came when we were notified that the food trucks were no longer allowed to operate in industrial zones. [But] even that has been a positive experience, launching many needed changes in the permitting system.”
Mark Jensen of Fork in the Road was also a frequent staple in Lexington’s brewery rotation, and was similarly enthusiastic about the last year, saying, “it was successful creatively, strong links were created between us and our fantastic local farmers, and we found our patrons to be open minded, adventurous, and smart.”
He cites Lexington’s emerging craft brew culture as hand-in-glove key to the success of the food trucks. “Our partnership with the local craft beer scene was the cornerstone of our presence in Lexington. Without Country Boy Brewing, West Sixth Brewing, and Lexington Beerworks, we would not be able to continue. More venues opening up to mobile foods will determine the success or failure of food trucks in Lexington.”
Two additional craft breweries are on tap to open in west downtown in 2013. West Sixth, Country Boy, and Lexington Beerworks have all opted not to dedicate kitchens to heavy food prep, and have instead relied on a combination of food trucks and neighboring restaurants to feed their hungry patrons, while they focus on craft brew.
Not all brick-and-mortars have been as receptive, viewing food trucks as competitors for a precious dining dollar, and suggesting that the trucks could confine their activities to outdoor fairs and fests and special events (like July 4th).
Food truck enthusiasts point out that a vibrant and diverse dining scene attracts more food consumers, not fewer. (Lexington’s Jefferson Street renaissance is a brick and mortar example of a rising tide lifting all boats. Stella’s was the pioneer (and then changed hands), followed by Wine + Market, and then Grey Goose and Nick Ryan’s. Grey Goose owner Keith Clark then opened the Blue Heron craft cocktail bar across the street, and Nick Ryan’s owners Don and Barb Wathen bought up neighboring property to expand Nick Ryan’s.)
Tibbetts says, “Cities that have embraced the food truck culture have not seen restaurants close up shop, but have instead seen increased foot traffic creating a more vibrant space that brings greater success to all local businesses.” Bradford adds, “The demographic that will purchase a $5.00 sandwich from a food truck is not the same as the sit-down dinner crowd. A food truck following will increase the exposure for the downtown restaurants.”
Jensen agrees, and adds frankly,
“The one and only thing that I know, that keeps a service business like ours successful, is being good. And to continue to be good, to develop, to grow. If a brick and mortar feels they can’t compete with my little push cart, come on, they need to step up their game.”
There is a carrot — tasty, diverse food options are an undeniable draw to any destination dining corridor. But there is also a stick. Tibbetts adds, “We feel that any regulation based on protectionism is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the Constitution. This issue has been ruled on in multiple federal courts already and we hope the city will follow the federal precedent already established.”
A fairs and fests model isn’t sustainable for an actual food truck culture, and it isn’t local-centric. Jensen points out, “I’m not a concession vendor. I don’t think a special event business model based solely in Lexington would work for the concession crowd, either. I imagine they’d need to be part of the seasonal tour of events across the region. The outcome of this would be Lexington seeing more vending coming from away and the city would not get the revenue generated from the vendors who call Lexington home.”
Tibbetts says, “With the added cost of event fees, refrigerated trucks, additional employees and transportation costs, this model only works for those trucks that support high volume sales. Those vendors that focus on unique food prepared at the time an order is placed are rarely able to participate in these types of events.”
Downtown has long pursued a goal of culinary diversity, ambitiously, if not always successfully. But the north end of Jefferson and Lexington’s Distillery District are examples of neighborhoods that do not (yet) fully have the infrastructure in place to support a major brick and mortar dining corridor, but they do attract bustling entertainment and drinking crowds who expect to be fed.
Aside from the potential to serve emerging neighborhoods, what do food trucks contribute to Lexington and to the culinary culture (other than a taxable revenue stream)?
Jensen says, “It’s an outlet for creative cooks and chefs to bring their talents to the people. It energizes the food scene, elevating it faster than the slow development of brick and mortars. It gets people out and enjoying the city, there’s a business synergism.”
Lexington might not have quite the demographic to keep a Korean pancake restaurant in business, for example, but a week-long pa-jeon pop-up sold out almost every day as an October fundraiser for Institute 193.
Bradford also echoes the creative satisfaction. “Our philosophy is to serve fresh products, grown locally, based on traditional slow-smoked meats with a new twist. Matt’s Kalua Pig is a traditional style meat that he dresses with a Polynesian sauce with fresh ginger.” They also braise a brisket in local beer and serve it with white lime salsa.
Tibbetts says food trucks bring with them “increased pedestrian traffic, a reputation for food culture, and added tax revenue. People come out and patronize the businesses in the locations where food trucks are, increasing the exposure and sales of bricks and mortar establishments. Louisville has recently been named one of the top 10 food cities in the country and the increased presence of food trucks was cited as a primary reason.”
This article also appears on page 12 of the February 7, 2013 print issue of Ace.
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BFTA’s Goals for the Food Truck Work Group
Kristin Voskuhl of Hardwood Pizza says, “Thus far, we feel like the city (Itinerant Merchant Task Force, DLC, Mayor’s Office, etc) has yet to tackle this issue very creatively. Put this issue to public referendum and I think we all know what the outcome would be. After two years of aimless committees and sub-committees, this issue needs a shot in the arm. Here’s hoping that the new Council work group isn’t beholden to any special interest other than the general public.”
Bluegrass Food Truck Association director Sean Tibbetts (Cluckin’ Burger) expresses goals for the new Food Truck Work Group that either were not addressed or were muddied by the Itinerant Merchant Task Force.
1. Remove requirements for Certificate of Occupancy for every address where a food truck sets up.
“We would like to see the Working Group remove the requirement for a Certificate of Occupancy that currently has to be obtained for every address where we work. Since we don’t make any changes to the physical premises when and where we set up we really don’t understand why a certificate from Building Inspection is required.”
This would get Food Truck operation out from under Building Inspection, as food truck whereabouts are already regulated by the Health Department.
2. Eliminate the Division of Revenue’s fees for updating addresses.
Tibbetts says, “We would like to see the fees required from the Division of Revenue for updating addresses eliminated as this requirement only inhibits our ability to support multiple venues in a given weekend.”
Food trucks are, by definition, mobile, and operate at multiple addresses (already overseen and regulated by the health department).
3. Allow food trucks to operate on public property.
Tibbetts says, “Currently restaurants are granted use of public land with sidewalk cafes and we feel we should have the same access rights as any other food proprietor in the county.”
Jennifer Bradford of Bradford BBQ, a BFTA member, echoes the need for streamlining, and the establishment of an online payment system for government fees. Also on the wish list: “Allow rental of meter parking for Food Truck use.” LexPark’s Gary Means has been invited to serve as a member of the new work group.
Fork in the Road proprietor Mark Jensen says public spaces can be opened up to “mobile food vending with a common-sense, respectful approach.”
Tibbetts points to neighboring cities as prospective models. “Louisville and Cincinnati both have seen their food truck scenes expand exponentially in the past year by reducing the regulatory hurdles required and embracing the mobile food business model. Both cities recognized that when the government creates protectionist barriers to success they only inhibit innovation. Both cities provide a streamlined registration process and allow mobile vendors to operate on both public and private land with minimal regulatory burdens.”
From the Chair: Mobile Food Truck Work Group Goals
Council Member Shevawn Akers chairs the Mobile Food Truck Work Group. Additional Council Members serving are Bill Farmer, Kevin Stinnett, Harry Clarke and Diane Lawless.
The first meeting will be Thursday February 7 at 8:30am.
She says the group’s first “goal is to streamline permitting and licensing processes thru LFUCG. Second goal is to establish guidelines to protect neighborhoods, protect brick and mortars and still encourage food trucks.”
It’s a complicated process, she says, because “food trucks are regulated by LUFCG and state health department laws – which we can do nothing about. Since LexPark is also a private entity, they make the rules as far as parking spots go, so we (LFUCG) have no jurisdiction. My goal is to negotiate compromises with both the health department and parking authority to facilitate food trucks.”
For the group’s composition, she says, “CMs are voting members of workgroup, along with non-voting community reps from Mayor’s office, food truck association, food cart rep, brick and mortar rep, health department rep, parking authority and DLC.”
She says she will submit proposed legislation in advance of the February 7 meeting to workgroup members, and will then discuss objections, concerns, etc. with work group members on February 7.” That will leave time to “make changes as approved by the workgroup and present final recommendation to Economic Development Committee of the Whole on February 19.”
Meanwhile, in Chicago… the IJ has put together a visual aid.
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