Food Service & Agriculture, Government, and Law

Food truck ordinance around the corner

City ordinance would allow eateries more freedom to operate on public property downtown.

July 22, 2016
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Food trucks
Food trucks in downtown Grand Rapids have proven to be a popular lunchtime staple. Courtesy DGRI

There’s now heavy legal energy moving behind Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’s dream of having more food trucks in the downtown area. 

A new ordinance that would allow food trucks more freedom to operate on public property in downtown Grand Rapids was introduced during the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting July 12. 

“Food trucks provide us a proven way to expand culinary entrepreneurship, grow more small businesses and jobs, activate public spaces, increase consumer food choices and boost our already exciting local culinary scene as a whole,” said Kris Larson, president and CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. 

“This proposed ordinance aspires to advance common-sense changes that will allow our burgeoning local food truck industry to grow and thrive.”

The proposed ordinance comes after months of work and conversations among DGRI, city staff, food truck owners, downtown restaurants and other community members, said Andy Guy, DGRI chief outcomes officer. A partnership between DGRI and the city staff put forward the proposal, he said.

According to DGRI, the ordinance proposes to do the following:

  • Streamline the business licensing process by requiring a single license for the food truck business. Currently, the city requires licensure of all food truck employees under its transient merchant license process.
  • Enable food trucks to operate in public parks, open spaces and rights-of-way.
  • Prioritize protection of public health and safety. For the first time, the ordinance requires that all food truck businesses operating in the city get regular fire safety inspections.
  • Prohibit vending within 100 feet of traditional restaurants.
  • Clearly define all vendor responsibilities related to trash management, hours of operation, noise controls and other operating guidelines.

“I think this whole ordinance is written as a pilot approach. So at one level, we’re going to sit back and see what the market determines of the food trucks — to see if they can do business, if at all,” he said. 

“Hopefully, it will cultivate entrepreneurs and give a wide range of affordable and culturally diverse food options for people. If we put out more food, more people are going to come … increasing the market share of the downtown area.”

DGRI, in collaboration with LINC Community Revitalization Inc., West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Start Garden, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Local First, held a town hall meeting July 20 to discuss the local food truck industry and the proposed ordinance.

A food truck ordinance has long been in the works for downtown Grand Rapids. In December 2015, the Grand Rapids City Commission approved the GR Forward plan, which identified food trucks as a piece of the city’s future economic development puzzle. In February, Bliss gave her first State of the City address, in which she thanked the collaborative work of city staff, DGRI, food truck owners and other community members in drafting a conceptual ordinance. She also called for the city to become a more food truck friendly place — and has done so on numerous occasions since.

DGRI and city staff spent the spring convening a Food Truck Policy Reform Work Group, identifying key issues on food trucks and developing a community engagement process.

In May, the DGRI Board of Advisors asked the City Commission to adopt a streamlined regulatory process for food trucks, while still making sure that they would respect the proximity of already established local restaurants.

The City Commission will hold a public hearing on the food trucks proposal July 26 at City Hall, Guy said. He hopes it will pass in time for ArtPrize in September. If it takes longer, it’ll likely be rolled out next spring, he said. 

“After the public hearing, it’s really up to the City Commission as they see fit. I know it’s a priority to the mayor. Ideally, I think we could experiment with some stuff later this fall if they act on it in a timely fashion this summer.”

“It’d be fun to experiment with some stuff during ArtPrize. It might take city departments some time, though, to get adjusted and do paperwork.”

Restaurant owner Mark Sellers, founder and CEO of BarFly Ventures, isn’t too worried about food trucks taking away business from his establishments, HopCat, Grand Rapids Brewing Co., Stella’s Lounge and Waldron Public House. Sellers said he favors making it easier for food trucks to operate in the downtown area. First, he said, food trucks can often serve as trial balloons for future restaurant concepts. The more food trucks, the more potential for diverse and “interesting” new restaurants in the area.

“Second, it costs a lot less for a great chef to start up a food truck, making the dream of opening a restaurant accessible to low-income residents who are (talented) but can’t afford to open a brick-and-mortar location. Anything that makes it easier for someone to start a new business is a good thing,” Sellers said. 

“Third, food trucks are interesting to consumers, and bringing more of them to the city will serve as a magnet for people to come downtown and other business districts. Anything that brings more people downtown and to the city is a good thing. Nearly all consumers want food trucks as a dining option. The city should make it as easy as safely possible for food trucks to exist alongside other dining options.”

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