By Peter Passi | Duluth News Tribune
Jonathan Reznick’s not exactly your stereotypical businessman.
You won’t find him bad-mouthing a proposed city ordinance that would jack up fees and require stricter regulation of food trucks like the one he operates in Duluth. Just the opposite: Reznick welcomes the new ground rules.
Right now, a $51 peddler’s license is all the city requires of would-be food truck operators.
“As a city, we essentially have nothing in place for rules,” said Duluth City Councilor Emily Larson. “Someone could pay $51, park a food truck wherever and simply plug the meter.”
The ordinance Larson has introduced would require food trucks not to encroach on traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurants. Street vendors would need to give any operating eatery at least a 200-foot berth — equivalent to about half a typical city block — if the ordinance is adopted at the next regular City Council meeting May 13.
Food trucks and carts also would be required to maintain a minimum 400 feet of distance from events, unless they are an organizer’s recognized guest.
Larson also has proposed a new license for food trucks that would be substantially more expensive than the $51 they now pay. She initially suggested something along the lines of about $800 per year, in keeping with what the city of Minneapolis charges. But Larson said last week that she’s now thinking about a lower fee that would more closely reflect the true administrative costs associated with regulating a new local industry.
Though Larson said she still hasn’t arrived at exactly what the license fee for a food truck should be, she suggested non-motorized food vendors could be charged one-half of that sum.
Reznick’s truck, called the Rambler, began doing business in Duluth last year, and as one of the city’s first motorized food vendors, he made a concerted effort not to stir up trouble.
“I wanted to do it the right way,” Reznick said. “There have been some issues with food trucks in other cities, and I didn’t want to burn any bridges.”
Accordingly, Reznick worked with local businesses, taking his truck only where it would be welcomed.
Another food truck operating under the name Chow Haul also began doing business in Duluth last year and in a fashion consistent with Reznick’s. The two trucks regularly communicate with one another and coordinate their movements.
Chow Haul is operated by Keith Burgess and Samara Heim, both of whom embraced the idea of engaging with other local businesses.
“We want people to see that we’re not trying to sneak into the market. We’re on the front lines trying to make this work,” Burgess said.
When word got out that Larson and the Greater Downtown Council were looking to craft a food truck ordinance, Reznick, Burgess and Heim became actively involved.
“I decided it was better to work with everyone to come up with a solution, because otherwise it would be only a matter of time before something bad happened,” Reznick said.
Reznick fears a possible backlash against unregulated food trucks that might be less interested than the Rambler and the Chow Haul are in keeping the peace.
Finding a niche
That “peace” has been fragile at times. Julie Daly, co-owner of the Sammy’s Pizza in downtown Duluth, angrily recalled one food truck that set up shop, selling Philly-style sandwiches just outside her restaurant on West First Street last year.
“We can’t stand them,” Daly said of the food trucks. “They don’t have to pay taxes like we do.”
While Daly said she would welcome more restrictions on trucks, she contends the proposed ordinance doesn’t go far enough.
“I don’t want someone parked a half-block away from me selling food,” she said. “I wouldn’t be happy about that, either.”
But some other local restaurateurs give Larson’s ordinance high marks.
“I think it’s a really good compromise,” said Tony Boen, a regional manager for Grandma’s Restaurant Co. “Right now, a food truck could park in front of my doors, selling burgers for $3 apiece.”
Boen said the ordinance would guard against that kind of direct in-your-face competition. He said he also sees a niche for food trucks, particularly late at night, when most other conventional restaurants have closed their doors.
Eddie Gleeson, owner of Carmody Irish Pub, has welcomed the arrival of food trucks in Duluth and encouraged Chow Haul to regularly park outside the doors of his business last year.
“By having one of those trucks outside a licensed tavern, we’re getting people to eat and sober up at closing time,” he said.
Gleeson views Chow Haul as a valuable partner that only bolsters his business.
“I can’t afford the overhead of keeping the kitchen open past 10 at night, and because of them, we became even more of an end-of-the-night destination for people in the Duluth music scene,” he said.
Tim Nelson, co-owner of Fitger’s Brewhouse, Burrito Union, and Tycoons Alehouse, said he supports Larson’s ordinance with its 200-foot buffer around conventional restaurants as “the best way forward.”
“Ultimately, we want to preserve the value of our commercial real estate stock. We need continued investment, especially downtown, and this helps protect people who make those investments,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nelson said street vendors offer people another food option that could make the downtown more vibrant and appealing.
“I think food trucks could make Duluth a little more hip and urban,” he said.
“It’s a trend that’s happening in all the coolest cities, so why wouldn’t it happen in Duluth?” Nelson asked.
George Regas, owner of the Coney Island Deluxe on West First Street, is less enthusiastic about the proliferation of food trucks and carts in Duluth.
“I’m not against food trucks by any means. But I’m concerned that my property taxes pay for the public sidewalks and streets on which they conduct their business,” he said.
“That they can come into the downtown for the peak months and siphon away money from the rest of us is a concern,” Regas said.
Nevertheless, Duluth’s Greater Downtown Council supports the proposed ordinance.
“It strikes a balance by providing some additional regulation,” said GDC President Kristi Stokes of the prospective new policy. “It makes sure food trucks won’t set up right in front of restaurants but it also ensures that there is still room for them out on the street.”
Likewise, the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce has backed the ordinance, too.
“Of course, food trucks are operating without any real regulation right now, so putting something in place so everyone is playing by the same rules seemed to make sense,” said Roger Wedin, the Chamber’s director of policy and education.
Larson said she’s been encouraged by the willingness of food truck operators and Duluth’s existing business community to work together.
She has also been impressed by the inroads made by Duluth’s first two food trucks — the Rambler and the Chow Haul.
“The trucks we have are awesome, and they’re great stewards. They’re bringing creative, good food to the streets,” Larson said.
While Larson hopes additional food truck operators will be drawn to Duluth, she said she doesn’t expect an explosion.
“I don’t think you will see a huge influx of food trucks, because it’s not an easy undertaking,” Larson said.
Reznick said his truck cost him about $90,000, and Burgess estimates he has poured about $100,000 and a lot of sweat equity into custom-building the Chow Haul.
Then there are the mean hours. The trucks offer lunch from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. daily and then reopen for night owls from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Even when the trucks aren’t serving hungry customers, their operators often can be found prepping for the next meal and cleaning up from the last. Add to that mix the challenge of a constantly changing menu to keep the presentation fresh.
“It’s insane, but I love it,” Burgess said.