Janesville seeks public input on mobile food vendors

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, March 16, 2014

JANESVILLE—The city of Janesville is seeking public input on the idea of street-side tacos, parking-lot gumbo, and whether they're a good fit for the city.  

The city is holding a public information and input session Tuesday to learn how residents feel about the city updating its rules on mobile food vendors—an issue that arose late last year after a Janesville man began selling Cajun food out of a modified recreational vehicle from a private parking lot.

The city has restrictions in its ordinances and zoning rules that make it hard for mobile food vendors to operate. The city is seeking direction from the public on whether—and how—the city could update its rules. 

“The point, really, is to start a dialogue on the concept of food trucks and how we'd want to handle them in the community,” Building Development and Services Manager Gale Price said.

Late last year, Janesville resident Chad Measner set up in a private parking lot on the city's west side, and began to sell Cajun food out of an RV he had converted and gotten licensed by the state and the county.

He then learned the city has an ordinance that doesn't specifically allow mobile vendors on public property or rights of way. Also, a set of city zoning rules prohibit vendors other than “seasonal” merchants from operating out of vehicles in business districts.

Meanwhile, other city rules don't seem to clearly spell out how food trucks can handle point-of-sale cash payments for vendors, according to city officials.

For Measner, it meant he had to spend most of the winter parked in a private parking lot, which the city allows. He takes orders at his truck, but under city rules, he has to take payments from customers inside an adjacent business.

Customers have had to go through a byzantine, time-consuming process of following Measner from his truck, inside another business, and back out to the truck to get their food.

Price said a deluge of calls and emails came after a Gazette story in December detailed Measner's difficulties with city rules.

Price said most people, including a few who want to have their own food trucks, said they want the city to be more open and accommodating to mobile food vendors.

“We've had quite a bit of input and comment from people interested in food truck people who think it's a good asset to the community, and others who are interested in having food trucks as a business,” Price said. “We believe it's an appropriate time to open up the dialogue and start discussing these facilities how they may be able to become accommodated with the city of Janesville.”

City rules also allow local farmers markets to petition the city for permission to have the vendors it chooses, and “seasonal” vendors such as Christmas tree sellers, are allowed to set up in parking lots under certain guidelines.

There are no city rules prohibiting mobile food vendors from making arrangements with private industries to set up shop in parking lots there, but the city doesn't allow vendors such as ice cream trucks or hot dog carts to drive up and down residential streets or to park

The city council outlawed those businesses after a child was stuck and killed by an ice cream truck in 1983, Price said.

Measner has argued his business is different, because he's not trolling the streets. He's parked in one place, in a parking lot.

He has said he would like to see city rules allow him to park in public parking lots and to move around the city. He also argues the city should allow him to take cash payments at his food truck.

But Measner's business model might not be one other vendors would choose. Price said the hearing Tuesday could shed light on where residents and even business owners might want to see the trucks operate, and whether they should be able to move from spot to spot in the city.

“Before we commit to work on any policy, we really want input to form something that helps satisfy the customer base on both sides of the fence,” Price said.

He said that would help the city work on potential policies and guidelines for mobile vendors. New city rules would have to comply with state and county rules on licensing and food preparation.

“It might be that people say food trucks are OK, but don't keep them in the business districts, and don't' let them in the neighborhoods,” Price said. “I'm not saying that's what recommendations would be, but we need to hear from people.”

The city of Whitewater has an ordinance that allows mobile vendors in its downtown. But not all municipalities in the area are as friendly to the idea. 

The city of Milton briefly considered a ban last year on mobile food trucks after business owners there got up in arms over a taco truck that was parked in a public lot on the city's east side downtown, selling food. The business owners argue the taco truck had an unfair advantage because it could move around and didn't have as much overhead as a “bricks-and-mortar” business.

The Milton City Council backed down from setting a ban, but it has stalled on setting any hard rules for Mobile food vendors.

Price said Janesville likely wouldn't be able to place an outright ban on mobile food vendors.

“Our attorney has looked at that, and the courts are not supportive of an all-out ban on commerce activity. It's not something we'll be able to implement,” he said.

On Saturday afternoon, Measner's Cajun food truck was parked off Crosby Avenue, in the same lot it's been all winter. Measner and another employee in the truck served half a dozen customers over a 15-minute time span.

“And that's a slow day for us,” Measner said.

A few days earlier, Measner said, he had a line of five customers at the truck, and he was juggling a dozen pickup orders at once. That day, a regular customer helped Measner keep up by trundling orders to customers while Measner dealt with the unorthadox cash transfer system he's been stuck with because of city rules.

“You could see how when we're very busy, the city's rules, the way they are, it makes it difficult. It's a hassle,” Measner said. “I'm hopeful the city can get something figured out."

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