By Erin Blasko | South Bend Tribune
SOUTH BEND — A bill before the Common Council seeks to capitalize on the food truck craze by allowing for the operation of food trucks downtown and in outlying areas, giving new meaning to the phrase “a meal to go.”
Drafted by the Department of Community Investment, the bill seeks to amend the city’s restaurant ordinance to include food trucks, which have become an increasingly popular addition to local food scenes throughout the country.
The bill defines a food truck as “a licensed motorized vehicle that is enclosed, self-contained and serves food items to the general public” — and that generates at least 80 percent of its revenue from food or beverage sales.
The bill also establishes an annual licensing fee of $525 per truck, and it regulates how and where food trucks may operate.
In general, trucks may not obstruct the sidewalk or public right-of-way, and may only park in one spot for up to four hours.
In addition, operators must carry liability insurance.
The Department of Community Investment drafted the bill with input from the Health, Police, Fire, and Building departments, the Board of Public Works and Downtown South Bend Inc.
The ordinance as written does not contemplate food trucks, making them illegal.
“Right now, the way it works, if something is not listed or governed in the ordinance, you cannot do it,” said Chris Fielding, assistant executive director of Community Investment.
In places such as New York and L.A., food trucks have allowed aspiring restaurateurs to break into the business without the hefty upfront investment, adding to the local food scene.
Fielding sees the same thing happening here.
“A food truck is a really great way for a restaurateur to break into the market without a $200,000 to $300,000 investment,” he said.
At the same time, traditional restaurant owners can use food trucks to test new concepts or reach new customers, he said.
Or they can lease prep or storage space to food truck operators as a source of additional revenue.
“You will have to have a licensed kitchen to prepare your food, and that might offer an opportunity,” said Mark McDonnell, owner of LaSalle Grill and LaSalle Kitchen and Tavern downtown.
“As I’m not open for lunch, I may be able to lease kitchen space to them,” McDonnell said.
Andrea Georgion co-owns Rolling Stonebaker, a Porter County-based food truck operation that serves pizza out of two 1940s-era Studebaker firetrucks.
She said she and her partner, Jim Chaddock, would set up in South Bend more often if it were legal to park on the street.
“If the ordinance were to perhaps say that one truck could be at one particular location for an extended period of time per day without having to move, that would definitely be enticing and exciting for us to come into that area more often,” she said.
Other food truck operators say they’re also ready to roll into South Bend if city officials approve the bill.
From an economic development standpoint, food trucks provide for additional food options in outlying areas, such as Ignition Park or Blackthorn, Fielding said, where dining options are limited.
“With about 50 percent of the businesses we talk to, one of the questions we always get is, ‘Where are people going to eat? Where are they going to go?’” Fielding said of efforts to lure businesses to such sites.
“So it’s also a way to allow businesses to sprawl out a little bit … and then they just walk out the door and there are two or three food trucks to eat at.”
Despite the fact food trucks cost much less to open and operate than restaurants, giving them an economic advantage over brick-and-mortar establishments, Fielding believes the two can co-exist.
Georgion and McDonnell agree.
“I don’t think that food trucks really take away from restaurant business,” Georgion said. “I think they can add to the area.”
“Some people are looking for a quick bite to eat, and it could be convenient for them,” she said. “And some people are look to spend a little bit more time on their dining experience.”
“Does it take the dining dollar away from somebody? Yeah,” said McDonnell, who serves as president of the Downtown Dining Association. “Then again, are people going to go out in January, in 2 feet of snow and 3 below zero, in a food truck?”
McDonnell said he may even open a food truck himself.
“I think many of us might be interested,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of cooks that really want to do it, and they make some killer stuff that’d really be a hit.”
The Common Council will consider the bill next month.