Council places limits on Smash and other food trucks

By Jason Hawk -

A list of temporary rules for public food truck operations was put in place Monday in an emergency vote by Amherst city council.

The new conditions for mobile kitchens — namely the Smash food truck that’s appeared in front of the Pour House on Park Avenue — will last until Dec. 31 or the creation of city laws regulating the trucks, whichever comes first.

“It says, ‘Here are the rules until we come up with something permanent,’” said councilwoman Jennifer Wasilk.

While assistant law director Frank Carlson said it’s not an absolute ban, it does prohibit food trucks from parking on public property within 15 feet of any building or parked vehicle, in fire lanes, or from using combustible fuel. It also puts controls on the noise and fumes such kitchens are allowed to generate.

The list require food trucks to have fire extinguishers and up to $1 million in insurance. “I think anybody who’s in business understands $1 million is peanuts,” when it comes to insurance coverage, said council president John Dietrich.

By comparison, the city of Oberlin requires food truck operates, which are even more strictly controlled, to carry $2 million in liability insurance.

A last-second provision excluding Dancing on Main Street from the rules was added.

Mayor Mark Costilow said Main Street Amherst, which runs the event, already has a lengthy list of rules for food trucks in place. The event is planned, the streets are closed, and there is no traffic during the daylong festival.

Amherst firefighters also inspect mobile vendors at Dancing on Main Street.

John Kolcun, who owns the Pour House and invited Smash to set up outside his business, thanked officials.

“It sounds like it’s moving in the right direction. With a limited moratorium, it sounds like we’re going to be able to continue doing what we were doing in the past,” he said. On July 20, after talks with Costilow’s office, Smash moved behind the Pour House.

The truck will be back Aug. 3, Kolcun told the News-Times.

Smash owner Jenso Soto of Amherst promised to comply with the temporary rules. He said he wants to operate in the city’s historical downtown to offer variety.

The restrictions are supposedly in place because of worries over fire hazards.

But some local business owners have voiced anger over competition, saying it’s unfair for a food truck to operate next to brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Chris Russo, owner of the Brew Kettle on Church Street, said he also owns a food truck but there is a time and place for mobile kitchens.

He said such trucks shouldn’t be parked close to established eateries and complained the operators don’t pay sales, income, or property taxes.

Paul Bires, owner of Giuseppe’s Wine Cellar and the Cole’s Public House property, said he thinks downtown Amherst can sustain two more restaurants but they need to offer unique menus.

“This has nothing at all to do with competition to me. It’s creating a healthy environment,” he said, challenging council to come up with regulation that’s fair for all parties.

When Bires opened the former Cork’s and Stubby’s several years ago, councilman Phil Van Treuren was among the loudest voices against it because he felt it would compete with existing businesses. Monday, he called that opposition “one of the stupidest things I’ve done in my life” and apologized to Bires.

Van Treuren said he’s uncomfortable with regulating food trucks based on protectionism. He said his only concerns now involve public safety.

Carlson said the city has the legal right to regulate businesses to limit competition. Whether that will be a factor in council’s eventual legislation is up in the air.

He said Amherst has three options: do nothing, draft common sense regulations, or ban food trucks entirely.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk