When Jenso Soto set up Smash, billed a “the world’s greatest food truck,” on Park Avenue, he didn’t think it would ignite a controversy.
Now Amherst city council is considering a 90-day ban on mobile vendors downtown, while competing restaurateurs are voicing their anger.
“I want this to work but it’s going to need to be regulated,” councilman Chuck Winiarski said Monday, kicking off a debate about how food trucks and brick-and-mortar businesses can coexist.
Smash has operated two nights this summer — it will be back again Thursday — selling tacos, wings, and Cuban sandwiches in front of the Pour House.
It caused a stir July 13 when generator fumes forced customers off the patio at nearby Cole’s Public House, and when police voiced concerns over how the food truck was parked the wrong way on one-way Park Avenue.
There are no laws on the books regulating food trucks and no permits required. “There was no process for me to come downtown. It was wide open,” Soto said.
Now council is considering creating a $235 per year permit that would come with a list of limitations for how and where mobile kitchens could operate.
Mayor Mark Costilow said his chief concern is safety. There exists just a tiny passage in the state fire code requiring mobile kitchens to stay 10 feet from combustible materials such as awnings, telephone poles, and wooden siding.
That could change come September as the state fire code is reviewed. A draft includes a five-page expansion specifically regulating food trucks.
Law director Tony Pecora said cities have the right to regulate businesses for safety and economic reasons.
He bristled at the idea of a three-month citywide ban on food trucks while council hammers out regulations, saying any moratorium on their operation should be based on the risk they could pose in certain locations.
Pecora suggested finding a site at the edge of the downtown district — Tenney Avenue, for example — where Smash could set up with a much-reduced fire risk.
Though cities have the legal power to completely ban food trucks, more and more cities are opting to make them a part of the landscape. Cleveland has Walnut Wednesdays from May to September, where dozens of mobile vendors are invited to set up at Perk Park.
Safety was not the chief issue for many who attended the council meeting.
Taking the lectern to speak about the economic impact were Brew Kettle owner Chris Russo, Cole’s Public House property owner Paul Bires, and Olde Town Pizza House owner Darrell McCarty.
They were concerned that food trucks could set up downtown without paying property taxes, income taxes, or winning the approval of the Amherst design review board. Food trucks “should be regulated just like we are,” Bires said.
“I think competition is good, but it’s got to be on the same level. He can walk in, then drive out,” McCarty said of Soto.
An Amherst resident, Soto said he was surprised to be “the elephant in the room” that started the debate. His intent was never to harm anyone’s business, he said, but to be a part of the downtown atmosphere.
He was invited by John Kolcun, owner of the Pour House, which does not serve food.
Kolcun argued that while competition may dig into some nearby businesses’ profits, the food truck has tripled his Thursday sales. It received rave reviews from the large crowd of customers who gathered to try Smash’s menu.
He said the truck meets all the requirements of the fire code and that police told him they could not bar Smash from using two public parking spots.
“We’ve complied with the law. Everything the police department’s asked us to do, we’ve done,” Kolcun said.
Council is expected to hold a special meeting Monday to vote on a 90-day moratorium.
That will give time to examine a proposal to create food truck permits. It would affect mobile kitchens operating in public spaces such as streets and sidewalks outside of special events.
For example, permits would not apply to vendors at the Amherst Historical Society’s annual German Fest, held on its private property. Nor would permits apply to Dancing on Main Street, the August music-and-beer festival held downtown when streets are closed off for a day.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.