Lafayette, IN: City Regulations, Red Tape to Blame for Dearth of Local Food Trucks

Kenny Richards, left, and Amber Davis, right, work with Debbie Bucher inside the Emergency Munchie Truck at the Sagamore West Farmers Market in West Lafayette, on July 31. / Brent Drinkut/Journal & Courier

By Lauren Sedam   |  JCOnline

Kenny Richards cooks black bean burgers on the grill as Amber Davis cuts strawberries inside the Emergency Munchie Truck at the Sagamore West Farmers Market in West Lafayette. / Brent Drinkut/Journal & Courier
Kenny Richards cooks black bean burgers on the grill as Amber Davis cuts strawberries inside the Emergency Munchie Truck at the Sagamore West Farmers Market in West Lafayette. / Brent Drinkut/Journal & Courier

They’ve been roaming the streets of big cities like New York for years, serving up everything from waffles and tacos to Korean/Mexican fusion. TV shows are dedicated to them, and even smaller metros and cities such as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne have embraced the craze.

But when it comes to food trucks, Greater Lafayette seems slower to catch on.

Though the same laws govern mobile food units throughout the state, local officials are free to set further regulation. And with separate and more stringent guidelines in Lafayette, West Lafayette and at Purdue University, the area’s geography and the increased red tape it produces, there are many reasons Greater Lafayette is rolling in behind the trend.

Kenny Richards, left, and Amber Davis, right, work with Debbie Bucher inside the Emergency Munchie Truck at the Sagamore West Farmers Market in West Lafayette, on July 31. / Brent Drinkut/Journal & Courier
Kenny Richards, left, and Amber Davis, right, work with Debbie Bucher inside the Emergency Munchie Truck at the Sagamore West Farmers Market in West Lafayette, on July 31. / Brent Drinkut/Journal & Courier

“It’s the same code. But there are other agencies that have a part in this picture that can have stricter specifications,” said Dave Drinan, the chief of foods for the Tippecanoe County Health Department. “And that’s what is slowing things here.”

A new concern

From the outside, Drinan said, it doesn’t seem like Greater Lafayette is lagging behind the trend. The county health department, through which all mobile establishments must be registered, has just more than 30 permitted vendors.

The majority of those, however, are not food trucks. The number includes all entities that fall under the mobile food unit definition, including carts and trucks that offer prepackaged items, such as ice cream vendors and Schwan’s delivery trucks.

The rise of trucks like the Emergency Munchie Truck, which was started in November by Amber Davis and her mother, Debbie Bucher, has renewed interest in the guidelines that govern mobile food and how they are applied.

“The challenge I guess we ran into was nobody really knew what food trucks were,” Davis said.

The first hurdle, she said, was acquiring a commissary.

According to state code, all mobile food vendors are required to have a registered food establishment — a catering hall, restaurant or retail food kitchen — where they store and wash utensils and prepare items.

Davis said they explored many options before they were able to work things out with the YWCA. With limited resources in a smaller city, Davis said, it can be difficult to find a place that can accommodate the truck’s varying schedule.

It’s a common problem, Drinan said.

“The person who is doubling as a commissary for a mobile food unit, if they’re trying to get their food out at the same time, the kitchens aren’t big enough,” he said.

And the issue of waste water can compound that, Drinan said.

Trucks must have a way to dispose of liquid waste, which might include grease from food or dishes. Sometimes, he said, the commissary cannot handle the added load a truck might bring.

To complicate things, Lafayette’s Water Pollution Control Department does not accept any grease, and while West Lafayette’s does — it uses it for energy — dealing with the differing procedures might confuse and deter potential vendors.

Meeting all the standards

Even when health department permits have been issued, Drinan said, there are still laws to abide by, including parking.

Trucks are allowed to stay as long as they want on private property with the owner’s permission, but if they’d like to park downtown, they must follow parking rules like anyone else.

While Dennis Carson, Lafayette’s director of Economic Development, said the city welcomes the trucks downtown, Davis said setting up, serving and cleaning up in a typical two-hour window can be tricky.

In West Lafayette, the rules are the same, but retail food vendors are also required to obtain an additional peddlers license.

And Purdue is an entity in itself. When Davis was starting out, she saw potential in the untapped student market — but opening shop on campus isn’t so easy.

According to the campus solicitation policy, vendors are not allowed to park on campus. If they cater instead to groups for private events, they must be approved by the office of Radiological Environmental Management and Food Stores.

That’s something Tom Riehle has been able to do. He has served breakfast foods, including burritos, and break-time meals to construction workers and car dealerships for about seven years from his Burrito Bus, and he does serve crews on campus. Still, he says, the divisions between West Lafayette, campus and the area across the Wabash make it tough, and he hasn’t had time to obtain his license to serve in West Lafayette.

“My Burrito Bus can only go so far, and I can only do so many things,” he said.

“It’s extensive. You’ve got to have the right licenses. You’ve got to have the right permits.”

Still, despite differences in code, Drinan said the interest is there. He has received about 12 requests for information since June 1, and to make the process as easy as possible, he put together a mobile food checklist.

The trend will likely catch up, but Drinan said there will still be challenges in the area and with trucks in general.

“There’s more to it that people think,” he said.

“Basically you’re a restaurant on wheels.”

http://www.jconline.com/article/20130806/ENT03/308060021/City-regulations-red-tape-blame-dearth-local-food-trucks