Mobile food stand cooks up issues in Milton

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012
— Whether it's the prices, the competition or the unforeseen niche that it fills, one thing's for certain: A big green taco truck is causing quite a stir in downtown Milton.

The business, a mobile food stand that sells tacos, burritos, quesadillas and other types of Mexican food, has been in town just a couple of weeks, but the truck has drawn fire from local restaurant owners who say it's creating unfair competition.

The complaints have prompted city officials to review rules the city uses to regulate mobile businesses and even consider raising fees for permits for mobile businesses from $25 a year to as high at $500 to $1,000, one official suggested.

The truck, which is owned by Los Agaves, a Mexican food restaurant at 401 E. Walworth Ave., Delavan, has been parked at various public parking areas around the city, mostly in Milton's two downtown districts—Parkview Drive on the east side and Merchant Row on the west side.

Lately, the truck's been in an off-street parking lot along Parkview Drive, where it sells food from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, the truck's vendors said.

"We are the only Mexican restaurant in this town. That's why we came here," said Mayra Delgado, one of the truck's vendors.

The restaurant also has a food truck in Whitewater, Delgado said.

In March, the city issued Los Agaves a direct sale permit, the same type of permit it's issued in the past to mobile food vendors, including ones that have sold frozen meat, ice cream or concessions to walk-up customers, said City Clerk Nancy Zastrow.

The permits cost $25 per year. Milton requires direct sellers of food to have valid state permits to handle and sell food. Los Agaves has valid permits and no health code violations, said Beth Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Milton's ordinance doesn't include rules on where the businesses are allowed to park, but Zastrow said the businesses generally can park in any public parking area in the city, with the exception of Milton School District property.

Russ O'Leary, a bartender at Junction Pub, 130 Merchant Row, told The Gazette that a handful of restaurant owners complained to the city about Los Agaves. He said some want better defined rules on where mobile food vendors can park and how close they can be to restaurants.

"It sort of defeats the purpose of having a restaurant here if you have a mobile (food) truck that can pull right up," O'Leary said.

Plus, O'Leary argued, unlike bricks-and-mortar restaurants in Milton, Los Agaves' doesn't pay property taxes for its mobile truck.

"This guy pulls in, makes money, and pulls out of town," he said.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Milton City Council asked city staff to look at how other communities deal with mobile food vendors and whether the city could create rules to limit where the truck is allowed to sell food.

City Administrator Jerry Schuetz suggested the city increase permit fees for mobile vendors, which he said could level the playing field for competing businesses.

A yearly permit fee of $500 or $1,000 "makes it harder for you to undersell" the competition, he said.

Mayor Tom Chesmore stressed the city should treat the situation with kid gloves, pointing out that the Los Agaves vendors aren't breaking any city rules and the business has constitutional rights.

"I don't want to look like we're trying to be isolationist," Chesmore said.

Vanessa Valadez, whose family owns Los Agaves, told The Gazette that the restaurant's truck vendors were trying different spots in Milton to find a customer base when business owners on the west side, in Merchant Row, gave them a sour reception and then complained to the city.

The city in turn asked Los Agaves if they'd move their truck to the east side, where there are fewer restaurants, even though Los Agaves is not currently required by city rules to limit its sales to one area of the city.

Valadez said Los Agaves moved to Parkview Drive to avoid more complaints. She said it's fine, because the truck's starting to build a customer base on the east side.

"They say, 'Oh, we don't have to go all the way somewhere else for Mexican food,'" Valadez said.

Valadez is surprised Los Agaves has upset other businesses in Milton. She said the restaurant's Whitewater truck has drawn no complaints.

Whitewater City Manager Kevin Brunner said that Whitewater has an ordinance and permit that's tailored specifically to street vendors.

Brunner said when the city first passed its street vendor ordinance a few years ago, it dealt with pushback from local restaurant owners who were worried that mobile food vendors would undercut them.

He said the city's chamber of commerce groups have since embraced mobile food vendors, including Los Agaves, which he said "add ambiance" to the city.

Last updated: 8:40 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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