Springfield, MO: Food Truck Vendors Hope for Broader Access

The Traveling Taco food truck at Fremont Avenue and Sunshine Street. Michael Gulledge/News-Leader

By Amos Bridges | News-Leaders.com

The Traveling Taco food truck at Fremont Avenue and Sunshine Street. Michael Gulledge/News-Leader

 Commission to hear bill tonight on zoning

Mondays and Tuesdays, Charlotte Turnbull hauls her mobile kitchen to the old airport terminal to sell fried flour tacos or burgers and french fries to Expedia employees looking for a fast lunch.

The rest of the week, the Traveling Taco is parked at its regular spot on the southeast corner of Fremont Avenue and Sunshine Street, where Turnbull picks up a fair amount of business from passing motorists and workers at Mercy hospital.

“I’ve done $1,500 on this lot in a day, which is amazing for this size,” she said Wednesday, as lunch customers began trickling in about 11 a.m.

Soon, Turnbull hopes to add a late night shift catering to college students and downtown bar patrons. But her plan — and the plans of other food truck operators eying center city — depends on which version of a revised temporary vendor ordinance City Council approves.

Current Springfield zoning ordinance restricts food trucks and other temporary vendors to areas zoned for general retail or commercial uses.

A proposed bill, up for review by the Planning and Zoning Commission tonight, would open up sites with industrial and manufacturing zoning, as well as those in center city and on Commercial Street.

The bill also sets requirements for temporary vendor sites, which must be on a private lot, and prohibits vendors from operating from a single location more than 180 days in a calendar year.

An alternate version, prepared at the request of Councilman Tom Bieker, contains most of the same provisions but carves out a section of downtown that would remain off limits to temporary vendors.

Bieker said he proposed the change after hearing from downtown bar and restaurant owners concerned that mobile food vendors would have an unfair advantage downtown, where traditional businesses must meet heightened aesthetic standards.

“You have these brick-and-mortar (businesses) that have an extremely high cost of entry,” Bieker said. “To allow someone to come in and set up shop across the street and sell the same comparable good and not be held to that same standard is unfair to all businesses.”

Bieker’s proposal would ban temporary vendors from operating in an area from Mill Street south to Elm Street and from Market Avenue east to Kimbrough Avenue. He said the prohibition strikes a balance between expanding the territory available to temporary vendors and protecting the interests of small business owners downtown.

“I think it’s a great fit in other areas of Springfield, including near government plaza and near (Missouri State University),” he said.

Turnbull said she’s talked with other food vendors and some don’t care whether downtown remains closed. Others see it as “kind of a double standard.”

“I have to be licensed, I get inspected just like that restaurant over there,” she said. “By limiting us, they’re limiting themselves … I think if the opportunity opened up you’d see maybe 20 vendors in town.”

City staff have taken a similar position, recommending the more open ordinance rather than Bieker’s substitute, said Principal Planner Mike MacPherson. “We don’t see what’s different about downtown compared to anywhere else.”

If the past is a guide, the Planning and Zoning Commission is likely to agree.

The commission in May voted unanimously in favor of opening up additional areas to temporary vendors. And while commissioners could switch support to Bieker’s bill tonight, several rejected similar arguments made by downtown boosters at the May meeting.

Whatever the commission’s recommendation, the bill will head to City Council for another public hearing, likely Aug. 27, followed by a vote two weeks later.

Turnbull thinks concerns about competition may be overblown. She doesn’t plan on taking the Traveling Taco downtown to go head-to-head with existing businesses at lunch.

Instead, she hopes to cater to the late night crowd or to set up shop in an under-served area with customers hungry for fresh food.

“It’s all about having that flexibility,” she said.