Nelson food trucks: how much is too much?
In part one of this special two-part feature on the rise of food trucks, former Star reporter Megan Cole explored the popularity of the mobile eateries in places like Portland. In this second instalment, Cole looks at the impact an increase in food trucks may have in Nelson and what community leaders feel must be done.
Spending several months working at a heliski operation, Lesley Clint and David Havemann were looking for a way to connect with the Nelson community through the spring and summer.
While making trips back and forth to Spokane, they noticed an old Wonder Bread delivery truck parked on the side of the road with a for sale sign on it.
Intrigued by the growing food truck trend, the pair decided to buy and modify it so they could prepare and sell food from it.
Soon, Havemann and Clint were busy selling food to the crowds at the Starbelly Jam Music Festival in Crawford Bay and even to the masses at MarketFest on Baker Street.
“We finished building it two days before Starbelly Jam,” said Clint. “That was the one festival we did and the rest of the summer we [parked at the Canadian Wholesale Club parking lot].”
The unofficial name of their truck may be Wanda the Wonder Van, but the pair drew on the nostalgia of the Muppets’ famed song Manamana to name their business.
Clint and Havemann signed an agreement with the property owner. They sold four noodle dishes (three of which were gluten-free) until they packed up for the season to head back to work in the snow.
Even though the response from customers was positive, they said getting the truck up and running was a challenge.
“There were a lot of hoops to jump through to get the truck built,” said Clint. “There were a lot of permits and licenses. We had to put in a fire suppression system, which we didn’t know about.”
“There wasn’t one person we could talk to to find out what we needed,” said Havemann. “There wasn’t a website or something for us to find the information. We had to learn it all bit by bit.”
As customers came to Manamana throughout the summer, Clint and Havemann started hearing more and more people say “I’m thinking of opening a food truck.”
“On the one hand we want to encourage them because it’s exciting, but on the other hand we wonder how many Nelson can handle. But I think there is room for more,” said Clint.
“I think people want to try new food and they like the casualness of food trucks,” said Havemann. “It’s hard to say if Nelson is big enough to support many more. When we started we found out Whitewater was opening theirs and got a little worried because now there are three of us in town.”
COMING SOON TO A CORNER NEAR YOU
Over-saturation of the market is not a new problem to the restaurant industry, but with food carts popping up in Vancouver and Victoria, the BC Restaurant and Food Service Association is saying enough is enough.
In November, a dozen Vancouver brick and mortar restaurant owners presented letters to city hall after the City announced 30 new licenses would be granted for food carts in 2013.
“That attitude is completely arrogant and out of touch,” said BC Restaurant and Food Service Association CEO and president Ian Tostenson. “For them to recklessly keep licensing them without taking review of the 110 or so we have now is stupid.”
Tostenson said he is not opposed to food carts, but said the City’s reckless approach to licensing and policy of the trucks is hurting Vancouver’s brick and mortar restaurants.
The majority of Vancouver’s food trucks are located in the downtown core, which is already saturated with sit-down restaurants, pubs and grab-and-go establishments.
With food trucks offering similar food options to the grab-and-gos, Tostensen said the brick and mortar owners are feeling the pinch.
“There is a proximity issue and an encroachment issue,” he said. “If you look at the economics, in Vancouver a food cart pays $1,200 a year for a license and a restaurant that serves grab-and-go pizza could be paying as little or as much as $30,000 a year in property taxes. It’s a huge cost difference. We understood that two years ago, but the problem is now they are so close and there are so many of them that they are hurting those brick and mortar restaurants and we don’t think that’s fair.”
NELSON ISSUES FEW… FOR NOW
Even though Nelson may only be home to a handful of food trucks during the summer, Food Carts USA who builds and manufactures food trucks (including the new Whitewater truck) said they have more orders for the Nelson area.
But with the trend emerging in the Kootenays comes concern from the brick and mortar restaurants.
Nelson city councillor Donna Macdonald said the City has received one complaint from a restaurant owner about a food truck that was parked on private property.
“We did have a complaint from a restaurant about one of the food trucks,” she said. “In that case the truck was parked on private property in a properly zoned location, so there was nothing really the City could do about that. I would imagine as food trucks pop-up it would be the street ones that will become of more interest.”
The City has been working at developing plans for sustainability and vitality in the downtown and Macdonald said she could see food carts being addressed first in the working groups for the Downtown and Waterfront Sustainable Master Plan.
“If there are more trucks on order, we will see it at council sooner rather than later,” she said “We will definitely have to give it some careful thought, there would have to be careful consideration given around parking, because parking is limited downtown.”
Instead of having food carts park in on street parking spots, Macdonald suggested the carts park in clusters similar to the model adopted in Portland.
She said possible homes for the clusters could me areas like the lower part of the Hendryx Street garden or in the new public squares the city is looking develop.
“I think it is workable, but we’ll need to look at how to do it so we aren’t damaging other businesses or the energy downtown,” she said.
Currently as part of the City of Nelson’s mobile vending and sales policy, vendors should not be selling any of the same menu items or merchandise during the same hours as other retailers or operators within 45 metres of the licensed area where the vehicle is parked.
Vendors in Nelson are also required to have the required business licenses and health permits.
For food trucks like Bite, owner Joscelyn Harris said she pays a square foot fee for the space of the parking spots in addition to hydro and grey water.
While it may be the cost that interests people to become involved in the food truck movement, it’s the economics that concern brick and mortar restaurants.
“From my perspective I think food carts are probably a bit of a concern for existing restaurants,” said Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson. “Restaurants pay a lot of high overhead and they pay relatively high taxes. There are lots of costs associated with a brick and mortar operation. I know that becomes really challenging if someone sets up relatively close to where they are.
“There are a lot of restaurants in town that are already set up and although food carts can add some vibrancy and colour to a community, I know it can also cause some grief with existing businesses.”
But owner of Portland’s Fifty Licks ice cream truck, Chad Draizin, said no one is getting rich in the food truck world.
“I don’t know if it’s a fair argument that food cart owners have an unfair advantage,” said Draizin. “In Portland, with a food cart you can really only make good money for three months of the year because of the rain. You might break even if you serve hot food… With restaurants, people still have to eat. They can go indoors and the amount of money there is in restaurants is so much greater than a food cart.”
With 400 to 600 food carts in the City of Portland, Draizin said only a handful have made a name for themselves.
According to Portland’s Food Cartology document, while food carts have helped improve the economic situation of local residents and businesses, and enhance a community’s quality of life, there are only a few examples of businesses that began as carts and successfully moved to storefront locations.
“I think what happened eight years ago were food carts were popping out from under the rubble of double-digit unemployment rates,” said Alma Flores who participated in the creation of Food Cartology. “These were options for low income, middle income and even high income people who had recently lost their jobs and didn’t have any other options in their mind. It afforded them an opportunity to try out something new and different at an affordable rate.”
For what we think about food carts click here.