Food truck vendor tangled in Janesville city rules

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Neil Johnson
Friday, December 13, 2013

JANESVILLE—It was 22 degrees at noon Friday. Snow and ice covered the ground, and mobile food vendor Chad Measner was trundling a cash box from his Cajun food truck across a parking lot and into the lobby at Crosby Place Banquet Facility.

A customer had just ordered a to-go platter of fish tacos. The customer seemed to know the routine: Give your order at the food truck, walk over to Crosby Place, pay for it, get your receipt, and then go back to the food truck to pick up your food. After all that, you can eat.

Odd? Unwieldy? Measner thinks so.    

Measner, a Janesville resident, runs South Padre Streetfood, a Cajun seafood restaurant on wheels that he's operated for a little over a month out of a converted recreational vehicle. He's got a licensed kitchen, insurance and health code permits to sell food, and he says he has a slowly growing customer base.

But otherwise, it's been a tough six weeks for Measner's fledgling business in Janesville.

After Measner sunk money into converting and licensing his mobile food truck, he learned from city code officials that the city has an ordinance that doesn't specifically allow mobile vendors on public property or rights of way.

Also, officials told him, a set of city zoning rules prohibit vendors other than “seasonal” merchants from operating out of vehicles in business districts, and 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.

Turns out the city apparently doesn't offer licenses for individual food truck vendors, and its ordinance on street businesses and sidewalk sales doesn't even mention motorized food trucks. 

As it stands, Measner now is handling business transactions in an unorthodox way--greeting customers and taking them inside Crosby Place--a licensed food seller--to pay.

Measner said he has permission from Crosby Place's owners, who own the private parking lot where he parks and operates six days a week. For cash transactions, he's got permission from owners to use the lobby and Deano's West Side Pub. 

So far, Measner believes he's toeing city rules and county health codes with the system, although he's not happy with it.

“I'm trying to operate by the books, but this can be a fiasco. It's not an easy way to operate,” Measner said. “It's weird, and it looks weird to customers. I don't want to make people feel like I'm running some kind of half-cocked thing. It seems a little ludicrous, and in the end it's a pain in the butt for the customers.”

City Building and Development Services Manager Gale Price has told The Gazette he's advised Measner his operations don't seem to fit with city rules. For Measner or any other food truck sellers to be in outright compliance, the city would need to amend its zoning rules and its ordinance on street businesses, Price said.

The city's zoning code on vendors limits selling to “excess parking lots” and prohibits food trucks or other vendors who sell out of vehicles from permanently locating in parking lots or another private business areas and using their vehicles as “principal” buildings to selling goods.

“The intent of the ordinance is to prohibit somebody from popping down in a parking lot and starting up a (permanent) business,” Price said.

The zoning rule exempts “seasonal” sellers, such as produce and fireworks sellers. And Price said Janesville's downtown farmers market operates under a separate rule, which allows an organized farmers market board to apply for blanket city permits to operate a street market as an “event.”

The muddier issue, Price said, is whether Measner can be allowed to toggle back and forth from his food truck and into a “bricks and mortar” business to do cash transactions.

“I haven't been able to learn, yet, what constitutes a transaction. Is it exchange of money or food? Both?” Price said.

Price noted he's told Measner that, ironically, there are no city rules preventing him from selling food outside local industries or factories if he gets permission from owners.

Measner indicated he wants the ordinance changed so he can lawfully park in private parking lots and take payments at his truck. He's had a few local factories in Janesville and Edgerton ask him if he'd food at their properties, and he's considering the option. But for now, Measner said, he likes his current location along Crosby Avenue because it's at a high-visibility, well-traveled area just a block north of Court Street.

Measner has heard Price and other city officials explain how the city cracked down on street businesses in the early 1980s after a young girl was hit while chasing an ice cream truck.

“In all fairness, I realize they're trying to not have 100 different people set up and sell trinkets on the streets. But I think I'm a little bit of a different case. I'm not riding around with bells, pulling around on the streets. I'm static. I'm parked in one spot,” Measner said.

Some area cities such as Beloit, Fort Atkinson and Whitewater allow mobile vendors along streets and in public areas under certain conditions. The city of Green Bay allows mobile vendors, but limits them to a section of downtown.

The city of Edgerton and the city of Milton both have no specific rules on mobile food trucks. Milton has grappled with mobile vendor issues in the last two years amid “bricks and mortar” businesses that have complained that mobile vendors have an unfair advantage because they can move around and don't pay property taxes.

Outside of the issue of business competition, ordinance changes for mobile vendors isn't a cut-and-dried issue, Price said. There are zoning rules that must be followed or altered, and the city would have to discuss how food trucks or other mobile vendors could best work in Janesville.

He said the city could hold a set of public forums, the first as early as January, to discuss the issue.

“The issue is so broad, and it's a unique enough issue that we should have public discussion before we try to draft an ordinance (for the city council's review,)” Price said. “Is it something that's acceptable in the community? I've seen it work in other places, but I can't answer for 65,000 people.”

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