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Somerville Eyes Food Trucks With Eagerness and Caution

The city is drafting an ordinance to govern food trucks. It likes the vibrant food-truck scene but wants to protect existing restaurants and residential areas. The ordinance could either encourage or discourage one of the country's growing trends.

Food trucks have become one of the hottest culinary trends in cities across the country, including Boston, and Somerville is hoping to hop on the bandwagon.

City officials are currently drafting an ordinance that would govern food trucks in Somerville, and in doing so they're trying to strike a balance between two goals. On one hand, they want to encourage food trucks, which could serve as a powerful attraction. On the other hand, they want to be sensitive to the interests of brick-and-mortar restaurants who call Somerville home, and they want to protect residential areas from too much food-truck traffic.

The Somerville Board of Aldermen is drafting the ordinance with help from city staffers, and the city's mayoral administration is also supportive. One of the key unresolved matters involves where food trucks will be allowed to operate.

Doug Kress, a member of the adminstration who's involved in the drafting process, said the city is still grappling with finding acceptable locations for food trucks. George Proakis, director of planning in Somerville, said "there really is a lot of investigation necessary" on that matter.

Sara Ross, owner of Somerville's , which operates a popular food truck, said if trucks aren't allowed in Davis and Union squares, "Why bother?"

Food trucks have come a long way

Kress, who's in Somerville on a fellowship, originally comes from Minneapolis, where he helped write that city's food truck ordinance. He also worked on food-truck policy in Boston.

"Mobile food trucks are really sort of a growing industry," he said, emphasizing they've become more of a "gourmet" experience.

"One of the biggest hurdles we'll have to get over [is that] when people start hearing about food trucks, they automatically think about hot dog stands," he said.

Anyone who's visited the food trucks at the SoWa Open Market in Boston's South End knows they're more than hot dog stands. 

Every Sunday from May to October, nearly 25 food trucks, serving a wide variety of foods, gather for the open market, and hundreds if not thousands of people flock to them.

They include trucks specializing in Vietnamese food, grilled cheese, fish and cupcakes (Kickass Cupcakes is one of the regulars), to name a few varieties.

In other parts of the country, food trucks have taken off even more. In 2009, Gourmet Magazine wrote about the bustling food-truck scene in Portland, Ore. In 2011, USA Today listed the country's best food trucks, found in cities such as Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Austin.

It's complicated

Kress said writing the food truck ordinance is "layered" and "complex." The law has to address issues of food safety, traffic concerns, litter and accessibility in addition to when and where to allow food trucks. Kress said the city also wants to encourage healthy foods.

Where to allow food trucks is one of the biggest issues. "The mayor is really looking forward to seeing these things" as they "make our streets more active," Kress said.

At the same time, "We're really trying to figure that out, because we really want to be conscious of the businesses and the residents as well."

Proakis said, "You probably don't want to put a taco truck right outside a mexican restaurant."

Food trucks, but where? And at what times?

"There are areas of the city that have a lot of foot traffic and don't have a lot of food options," said Proakis. He mentioned sports fields and the area around as possible locations. Kress mentioned .

However, Ross, owner of Kickass Cupcakes, which is based in Davis Square, was clear about where food trucks need to be. "If they're not going to let food trucks in Union Square or Davis Square, why bother?" she asked. (She did say Tufts would be a good location for trucks.)

In addition to Boston, Cambridge is opening up to food trucks and Brookline is trying to encourage them, she said. If Somerville is overly restrictive with its ordinance, food truck operators will choose to avoid the city.

"There's a lot of competition now," she said.

Ross also suggested Somerville allow food trucks in Davis and Union squares between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., as she predicts that would create a lot of business. Somerville is "hip and edgy," she said, and food truck operations in Boston end at 10 p.m.

Clustering, parking lots and competition with bricks-and-mortar

Ross said parking lots are a great place for food trucks, and "clustering is key."

She pointed to the parking lot on Day street, just outside Davis Square, as a perfect location. With "a parking lot behind the business district … you're not in direct competition," she said.

She also said the presence of food trucks doesn't necessarily take away from the restaurant business. "A cluster like that would be an attraction" to the area, she said.

Kress also said parking lots would be a good place for food trucks, and said of the dynamic between food trucks and restaurants, "hopefully they'll play off each other and enhance each other."

The draft ordinance is before the Somerville Board of Aldermen's legislative matters committee at the moment, and there's a meeting about it planned for Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at .

Adam Gendreau May 08, 2012 at 02:27 PM
You bring up some great points of concern, Mr. or Ms. Kostos! As a mobile food owner/operator in Boston, I'd like to share a bit about our operating expenses, and hopefully answer some of your questions.
Adam Gendreau May 08, 2012 at 02:29 PM
1. Mobile food vendors can move to a new location at will - While it's true that our businesses are capable of moving to new locations, the breakdown and cool down process that we all abide by, for safety reasons, prohibits us from doing so at a moments notice. Most truck operators will tell you that they would rather stay at one location and develop business organically, than to chase it around in areas that we perceive to be busier. 2. We don't pay rent, water or sewer fees - This is untrue. We have to pay commissary kitchen rent, usually rated by the hour, sometimes in excess of $50/hr. A 40 hour work week in our kitchens can cost most of us close to $2k/wk. This is much less than a lease on a B&M that would allow anyone to sell comparable food. We also have the rental overhead of parking our vehicle. We provide our own water, which is covered in our kitchen rental fees, so paying an extranious fee not applicable. 3. ... commercial trash removal fees - We pay these, as well, as part of the rental fees for our commissary. 4. We can skirt having to pay municipal taxes - The onus is on the municipality to ensure that we are paying our taxes. If we don't, much like a restaurant, we will be prohibited from doing business. 5. With regards to health inspections - We've had more interaction with Boston ISD in our 1 year as food truck operator, than weve had as our 10 years as chefs in Boston restaurants. We've had several walk-on inspections in the last month alone.
Adam Gendreau May 08, 2012 at 02:32 PM
I hope this helps address some of your concerns! This is very constructive dialog. Would love to help answer any other questions.
Ablum May 10, 2012 at 05:01 AM
Please bring food trucks to Union! They would be especially ideal at night, almost all places stop serving food at 10 or 11.
randomhookup May 30, 2012 at 09:32 PM
There's already a food truck or two that hang around at Tufts (on the Somerville side), legal or not.

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