Amid the larger sectors of the Kenai Peninsula’s economy, the standalone coffee carts and flexible food trucks that litter the peninsula have a role to play in the overall economic health of the area.
While coffee stands have been spotted the peninsula’s highways and towns for years, mobile food trucks are making their own mark on the small business sector. Seasonal and free to move about, mobile food vendors factor into the revenue gained through food and drink businesses.
“Overall, Soldotna is a food and drink hub on the Kenai Peninsula, and the sales tax collected from these establishments is an important segment of our revenues,” said Planning and GIS Technician Austin Johnson in an email.
The City of Soldotna currently has one food truck permitted — Blue Moon Burgers — Johnson said. The permits expire on an annual basis. Last year, Soldotna issued six temporary use permits for food trucks, also including Blue Moon Burgers. Johnson said the permit applications will likely start coming in soon for the upcoming summer season.
These permits are not a complete indicator of how many food trucks are operating in the area each season, Johnson said. For a large event or festival, the city issues a permit for the entire event, and vendors that attend are not required to get a separate permit in addition to that, he said.
“So in reality, the bigger picture is that there’s quite a bit of activity in the city,” Johnson said.
The city is working to take down barriers to mobile food businesses where it can.
“This is the first year for the new ‘Mobile Vendor Permit’ from the city,” Johnson wrote. “Temporary use permits will no longer be issued to mobile vendors. We went through a process last year with business owners, community members, the planning commission and city council to enact these new regulations and program guidelines specifically tailored to mobile businesses.”
Coffee stands or carts are permitted as permanent businesses since they don’t move, Johnson said.
“They receive a zoning permit and are held to the same standards as any other brick and mortar business with regard to landscaping, etcetera,” he said.
Rick Roeske, director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said the plethora of coffee stands found around the peninsula are in a unique situation because of more flexibility when it comes to zoning.
“You won’t see that anywhere but in Alaska,” Roeske said.
He added that the coffee carts can be a good overall economic indicator. If their workers are seeing less traffic and smaller tips, for example, it could indicate a slight downturn, he said.
Kenai resident Jessica Henry took over ownership of Shorty’s Coffee on the Kenai Spur Highway in June. In a career switch from working for the Alaska Department of Corrections, Henry changed the stand’s name, recipes and training practices, and said the business’s customer base has nearly doubled as a result.
“(We’re) just staying on point with all the new trends in coffee, which is basically lots of research for me,” Henry said.
When it comes to multiple coffee stands in one town, or competing with sit-down coffee shops, Henry said the unique purpose of coffee carts like hers is what keeps them successful. At Shorty’s, the staff know most of the customers, feature locally made goods and also cater to the gluten free population, she said.
“I think some are in competition, but I’d say they thrive because it’s more personal,” she said. “People still like the craft of coffee.”
In terms of how many food trucks, coffee carts and similar vendors can be supported by the local economy, Johnson said it will be up to the market.
“We welcome all business, including new mobile vendors, and would look to the market to dictate at what level we are ‘full up,’” he said.