Care to sample chocolate bread pudding with bourbon caramel sauce served up by The Sweet Hearth’s funky green-and-white food truck in your neighborhood?
Want to try Lloyd’s “tricked out nachos” while out on the town?
Do you want to sink your teeth into a gourmet slider served hot off the Knight Slider’s sleek black kitchen on wheels?
That may all depend on what happens in Buffalo and Amherst over the next few weeks as they grapple with what to do about food trucks – from how much they should be charged to operate to where and when they can do so.
Despite their popularity nationwide, food trucks are still relatively new to the Buffalo area, and in many communities, peddling laws written to govern door-to-door salesmen, some dating from the early 1900s, are the closest things on the books to a regulation for these mobile kitchens.
But elected officials and food truck operators say that’s just not going to work for this 21st century phenomenon.
Truck owners worry that if other towns and villages follow Buffalo and Amherst’s lead and set up their own sets of fees and rules, they’ll be severely limited on where they can operate.
“The cost to operate a food truck in Western New York is going to be astronomical,” said Peter V. Cimino, a principal with Lloyd Taco Truck, which opened for business in 2010.
Truck owners say their business is difficult as it is, pointing to two of their colleagues who have put their trucks up for sale.
Buffalo is weighing a renewal of a food truck ordinance enacted in January 2012 and expiring April 1. The new ordinance is much like the old one, but would reduce the $1,000 permit fee to $500 for trucks that paid the $1,000 fee last year. Like the existing ordinance, operators of new trucks would be charged $1,000 for their first permit.
In addition, a 100-foot restriction from any open kitchen is also maintained in the renewal. A hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Buffalo Common Council chambers.
Amherst is the first suburb to follow in Buffalo’s footsteps by requiring food truck permits, and is considering new regulations. A proposed law up for public discussion April 8 at Town Hall would be more restrictive, in some ways, than Buffalo’s permit.
Lovers of food-on-wheels would have more difficulty finding food trucks on streets in Amherst, late in the evening or near intersections under the draft law recently released.
While there aren’t any restrictions on food trucks in private parking lots, where the trucks do the most business in town, food trucks would be forbidden from operating for more than an hour on streets.
“We don’t want these folks just setting up shop and staking out an area for an indeterminate amount of time,” said Building Commissioner Thomas C. Ketchum, who authored the proposed food truck permit law.
The trucks don’t want to be anywhere all day, said lawyer Mitchell M. Stenger, who represents a coalition of mobile food vendors. They typically set up for two hours at a location, but restricting them to an hour is too onerous, he said.
The Amherst proposal also doesn’t allow trucks to be parked within 60 feet of any intersection for traffic safety and visibility reasons, and, like Buffalo, they can’t be located within 100 feet of any open kitchen without permission. Unlike Buffalo, the trucks would also have to shut down by 9 p.m. in residential neighborhoods and 11 p.m. in nonresidential areas.
“We were concerned about how this played into any nuisance activities in the evening,” Ketchum said.
Amherst’s annual permit would require a $500 fee for the first truck and $250 for each additional truck operating in town.
The town was motivated to create a specific food truck permit after the embarrassment of last fall when town police and code-enforcement officers shut down food trucks, turned away hungry patrons and endangered a food truck fundraising event for the City Mission because of an outdated “peddling and soliciting” law.
The new laws are designed to be more practical, community leaders said, while still protecting brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“These rules really need to be looked at,” said Tucker Curtin, who owns the Steer restaurant and Lake Effect Diner in University Heights and is urging the Council to increase regulations on the trucks.
While some are concerned, other city restaurants welcome and partner with food truck businesses. North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who has taken the lead on the food truck issue in the Council, said he has “received very, very few serious complaints about the trucks.”
Other suburban communities don’t yet require formal permits but are taking intermediate steps.
The Village of Williamsville is considering whether it should impose its own permit requirements on food trucks since the proposed Amherst law would not apply within village limits. Mayor Brian J. Kulpa said he’s conscious of “overregulating” food trucks but worries about the impact on brick-and-mortar businesses. He’s asking the Williamsville Business Association for its input.
“There is some anxiety from our restaurant owners about it,” he said.
West Seneca has set up a system for allowing the trucks onto town property, and has allowed one truck to set up at Town Hall and the highway garage for 90 minutes at a time. So far, there are no permit fees, but the trucks have to write to the town to request where they would like to serve and provide proof of insurance.
“It’s kind of like a look-and-see thing,” said Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan “It’s something the town is not saying no to.”
So far, Meegan has heard from just one restaurant owner about the trucks, which welcomed the competition, she said.
Officials of both communities said they couldn’t imagine charging steep fees like Buffalo and Amherst are considering.
“We wouldn’t ask for that much,” Meegan said of Buffalo’s $1,000 fee. “That wouldn’t help the vendor.”
Ayoub “Mike” Abboud, owner of the Knight Slider food truck that was shut down by Amherst police last fall, said all the restrictions were excessive and way beyond local government mandates to protect public health and safety. “It just doesn’t seem right,” he said.
Kelly Brewer, owner The Sweet Hearth dessert truck, said she used to do more business in Amherst than anywhere else but was forced to scale back after the fall. She has turned down several requests from Amherst businesses to come to town, calling the fees in Buffalo and Amherst “ridiculous.”
“The permit fees,” she said, “are the biggest obstacle for me to earn a living and grow my business.”