Gainesville, FL: Downtown Weighs Good and Bad of Luring Trendy Food Vendors

Jules Gollner, owner of White Apron Catering and the Chow Now Food Truck, serves employees of RTI at Progress Park in Alachua from her food truck Wednesday, May 18, 2011.

By Chad Smith |

Jules Gollner, owner of White Apron Catering and the Chow Now Food Truck, serves employees of RTI at Progress Park in Alachua from her food truck Wednesday, May 18, 2011.

Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, are known for their eclectic and quirky urban environs and all those who come with them.

That includes the increasing number of mobile food vendors — selling everything from cupcakes to barbecue — who have become staples in those cities and elsewhere around the country.

Gainesville officials say the trendy industry offers something they could use here: a shot in the arm of personality.

“The more character we can generate in this city the better,” City Commissioner Scherwin Henry said Monday during a meeting of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Commissioners serve as board members of the CRA, which is funded by property tax increments in four districts around Gainesville. On Monday, they talked about the upsides of the trucks as well as the potential roadblocks, both on the permitting side and on the business side, as more vendors could mean competition for brick-and-mortar restaurants.

While there already are a few mobile vendors in the city, Kelly Huard Fisher, a project coordinator for the agency, said there are several entrepreneurs who are interested in setting up their own businesses.

But Fisher said regulations in the city can be vague and cumbersome and suggested areas commissioners could simplify the process.

“Everyone’s just trying to make sure they follow the rules,” she sad. “There are first some areas that need to be clarified.”

Aside from a hot dog vendor who sets up shop near the Alacuha County civil courthouse on the downtown plaza, there also is a roaming lunch truck, Chow Now Food Truck, owned and operated by Jules Gollner.

Gollner, who also runs White Apron Catering, said she is entering her seventh month of running the truck to generate more revenue and give her employees more work.

“It’s definitely growing day by day,” she said.

But city codes restrict her from going many places to be nearest to lunchtime crowds.

She typically splits days between space near the University of Florida’s Emerson Alumni Hall and Progress Corporate Park in Alachua.

She also can’t set up during late night, when she ideally would be able to sell food downtown to crowds heading home from clubs and bars.

Fisher said there would be advantages to allowing vendors to stay open late.

“It gets food in people’s stomachs and lengthens the time before you get in your car,” she told commissioners.

While that seemed to go over well with commissioners, there were concerns about how many vendors should be allowed in what area.

“I like the idea of carts, and I actually participate in their business when I visit different cities, but I do think you can overwhelm a particular area when you have too many carts,” Commissioner Warren Nielsen said.

Mayor Craig Lowe worried aloud about the potential impact on existing restaurants.

Clif Nelson, who owns the Paramount Grill on Southwest First Avenue, said he doesn’t think the downtown market could bear an onslaught of vendors, as many employers have left the area.

“All that’s left down here are the few attorneys and the city workers or the Alachua County workers and the other people who work in restaurants who maybe order takeout, and that’s it,” Nelson said. “And parking is kind of a nightmare.”

He said he and, he suspects, other restaurateurs wouldn’t be happy to see the city change zoning and permitting regulations to usher in the trucks.

Either way, he said, “They may want to offer it, but I just don’t see it working.”

But Gollner said restaurants should have nothing to fear. In fact, she said, they could join her.

“I welcome it,” she said of the potential for competition. “Everyone has the same opportunity to go out and do it.”