Food truck ordinance strikes debate in GR

GVL / Robert Mathews
Matt Parrott from Standard Pizza Co. working his pizza oven at the Fulton Street Farmers Market.

Robert Mathews

GVL / Robert Mathews Matt Parrott from Standard Pizza Co. working his pizza oven at the Fulton Street Farmers Market.

Ellie Phillips

As the city of Grand Rapids begins to see a much more bustling patronage on its sidewalks, city planners are looking to food trucks to help add more life to the downtown cityscape. From trailers to converted shipping containers, food trucks are mobile concession stands that rely on less capital to operate than traditional “brick-and-motar” restaurants.

Currently, food trucks are legal only if related to a property’s established use. However, under a newly-revised proposed ordinance, food trucks and other mobile concession vendors will be allowed to operate on vacant or underutilized private lots for 200 consecutive days per year, provided they acquire Special Land Use approval by the planning commission that includes an open hearing for the public to give their opinion on the effect the vendor may have on the community and require approval from the Kent County Health Department.

The ordinance will also prevent mobile concessions from operating on public property, preventing food trucks from setting up outside a brick-and-mortar restaurant, though there will be nothing prohibiting those same brick-and-mortar restaurants from opening stands or non-mobile concessions in front of other brick-and-mortar restaurants.
The Grand Rapids Planning Commission tabled the initial proposal in December, after tension arose between proponents of the measure and local business owners, who argue that allowing food trucks in Grand Rapids could eventually put existing restaurants out of business, without being stable enough to reinvest that capital in the community.

“Really this is a pretty conservative approach to allowing (food trucks),” said Suzanne Schulz, the GR City Planner and owner of the Cherry Deli in (EGR?).

Schulz said the issue is very much up in the air, with many still undecided about whether or not the agree with the proposal. City administrators, she said, are being very cautious with the ordinance in hopes to find a balance that the community will approve of that will not harm pre existing business while still allowing for new entrepreneurial ventures in the area.

In April, the planning commission recommended the approval of the revised ordinance, and will hold a hearing June 12 at 7 p.m., at Mulick Park Elementary School, 1761 Rosewood Ave. SE., to discuss the potential impact of food trucks on the city and propose an ordinance regulating food trucks and other mobile concession units. This hearing will be open to the public, and community members are encouraged to attend and give their opinions on this controversial issue.

Among other city concerns, Schulz said, is the idea that adding mobile concessions could “over-saturate” downtown Grand Rapids, stretching the amount of potential customers even further. There are also worries that all of these food trucks might start to look “tacky” or leave trash scattered around, polluting the environment and detracting from the cleanliness of the city.

Though most restaurateurs are in favor of the proposed ordinance, some vehemently disagree, saying that mobile concessions reach a different customer base than the brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“There’s a lot of restaurant owners that don’t think outside the box,” said Paul Lee, owner of The Winchester bar and restaurant, and the food truck which is an extension of that restaurant. “Not everyone can afford or has time to stop at a restaurant. We wanted (The Winchester) to be essentially current…introducing people to things that are popular in…bigger markets.”

He feels that the ordinance would be detrimental not only to his and other food trucks, but also to the city and the public of Grand Rapids. Though the ordinance would not affect The Winchester, Lee’s main source of revenue, he’s concerned about the broader implications of the ordinance upon the city’s regulatory practices.

“It’s not the city’s role to regulate commerce,” he said. “It’s not a road we should go down in terms of government regulating business.”

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