Cindy Schneider credits her Lottos Lunch Wagon as her first step to launching the venerable San Chez restaurant downtown, so she has a soft spot in her heart for any entrepreneur who uses a food truck as a way to build a business in Grand Rapids.
By the same token, Cindy says, food truck owners need to recognize that they have to pay their dues in starting their companies -- just like she did when she converted an old popcorn truck into Lottos that served "Real Home Cookin'!"
One of those dues is accepting lower traffic and less prominent locations in downtown Grand Rapids, especially during major events like ArtPrize, she says. Food trucks shouldn’t be allowed to locate close by established restaurants downtown -- within 100 feet -- simply to siphon off potential patrons, all the while paying relatively little in overhead costs compared with a brick-and-mortar business.
The issue will come to a head soon in Grand Rapids. After years of tussling with regulation of food trucks, the Grand Rapids City Commission is scheduled to consider the proposed Mobile Food Business Ordinance on Aug. 23 that sets particulars on how food trucks can serve customers at city parks, curbs of city streets and open spaces.
Business owners packed the City Commission chambers on July 26 to voice their opinions on the potential ordinance, as a report by Channel 13 WZZM shows. In the same vein as Cindy, SpeakEZ Lounge owner Eric Albertson suggested to commissioners that an ideal location for food trucks is around Calder Plaza -- not particularly near restaurants, but squarely in downtown Grand Rapids.
“Calder Plaza Monday through Friday is a ghost town. There’s nothing there,” Eric told commissioners during the meeting.”Let the food trucks go there during the day, during lunch, and on the weekends, let them go to their events.”
Cindy thinks other locations could include spots near Grand Valley State University’s downtown campus and the Vern Ehlers Amtrak station near the busy Rapid bus depot. Grand Rapids could also take its cue from Traverse City, which has a designated area for food trucks about 5 blocks from sit-down restaurants.
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. came out in favor of a pilot ordinance, citing that food trucks “expand culinary entrepreneurship, grow more small businesses and jobs, activate public spaces, increase consumer food choices and boost our already exciting local culinary scene as a whole.”
Cindy agrees with all of that, but she thinks food trucks can also cut into revenues of businesses that pay property taxes and provide full-time employment year-round for people who also pay city income tax. She notes that revenues at San Chez dropped last year from 2014 during ArtPrize by 9 percent when the restaurant was expecting an increase of 11 percent, and she believes it is due to the corral of food trucks at the parking lot of the B.O.B.
If the City doesn’t believe sales can be affected within 100 feet, then why does the ordinance stipulate that food trucks aren’t allowed within 300 feet of “any fair, festival, special event or civic event licensed or sanctioned by the City,” she reasons.
“We have to build a culture in Grand Rapids for food trucks,” Cindy says. “I love ‘em, but we have to find the right spot for them to operate.”