Editor’s note: Heidi Isernhagen, Environmental Health Officer with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s food safety and sanitation department said Wook Waffaz Waffle Emporium has since renewed its DEC licensing and carries a current operating permit through the state.
A series of changes to the City of Soldotna’s code for mobile food vendors has been postponed after some business owners disputed the changes to the city council.
The council considered an ordinance during its meeting Wednesday which would have updated the city’s code and made it easier for mobile food vendors to operate in multiple areas throughout the city.
The current code does not have a specific zoning standard for mobile food vendors, and city officials have been using a section of the code designed for temporary use permits — that section requires mobile vendors to come up with a site plan, operate for just 110 days out of the year and pay for a new permit each time they move.
Some business owners said they didn’t like seeing the proliferation of food vendors in town as the carts competed with traditional brick-and-mortar businesses.
“Some are super cute and some look like a hot mess,” said Hooligans Lodging and Saloon owner Molly Poland.
Poland said she was frustrated by the lack of regulation that mobile food carts seemed to be operating under.
She said the city required her to get permits for numerous things she wanted to do to promote her business. However, a mobile food vender can park in town and sometimes escape or postpone the burden of having to register their business and be in compliance with city codes.
“As a business owner, if I want to have a parking lot party or something … it takes days and days to be able to just do one small thing,” she said. “I just feel like they’re not having to go through all the hoops.”
The city has five temporary use permit holders with mobile vending businesses, according to an email from City Planner Stephanie Queen.
Some, like a new Thai food truck, 44371 Sterling Highway, moved into town and began selling food without getting permits.
Queen said when that happens, planning department officials will typically approach the vendor and bring information about city code with them.
“I am currently working with the Thai food truck at Johnson’s Tire to bring them into compliance with our code,” Queen wrote in an email.
Another mobile food cart, Wook Waffaz Waffle Emporium, is registered to operate within the city limits but appears to be operating without a valid state-issued permit. According to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservations Division of Environmental Health, food and safety sanitation program permit webpage, the waffle emporium’s permit expired in December.
No one from the business has returned a call for comment.
Another new business registered to the city as Burger bus, 44720 Sterling Highway, also is not listed as having a permit, according to the state’s permit page. A message sent to the owner has not yet been returned.
Poland suggested limiting the number of food carts or requiring that they all park in the same place in town.
Cathy Musik, owner of Jersey Subs, said her business started in a bus 20 years ago. It has since moved into a building at 44224 Sterling Highway.
“I’m not against it, I think there should be a designated location for them to not be scattered throughout the community,” she said.
Under the proposed changes to the code, the requirement to file a site plan is eliminated and food vendors will just need to get permission from the property owner to operate in an area. Operators also will be able to sell food from mobile carts for an entire calendar year. The current $50 permit fee would remain the same.
Critics of the changes said the city could be charging more for the right to operate within city limits.
Chris Fallon, president of Jersey Subs, said it was frustrating to watch a business make money during the busiest parts of the year without having to deal with the burden of operating all winter.
“I’m not against them, but to come in, in the summer, when everybody makes their money and take the cream off the top … maybe they could cut us a break because we pay a lot,” he said. “We have to borrow money to get through the winter.”
Blue Moon Burgers owner Harlene Bartlett disputed the notion that mobile food vendors were out-of-towners looking to make a profit and leave. Bartlett parks her bright red trailer in the parking lot of Kenai River Brewing, 241 N. Aspen Drive.
“My husband and I have the business as a seasonal business because we also live here and work here all year round, and it’s my way of supporting my family,” she said. “As for the fees and stuff, as a small business in a short period of time, we pay our fair share.”
Council member Linda Murphy said she thought the $50 fee was low and suggested raising it.
As the council debated voting on the code changes, council member Keith Baxter asked what impact a delay in voting could have on the vendors already operating within city limits. Queen said if the city delayed implementing the changes, current vendors will have to remain stationary.
The council voted 5-1 to send the ordinance back to the city’s planning and zoning commission for further public hearings. The city will mail notices to brick-and-mortar business owners about the new hearing dates.
Reach Rashah Mcchesney at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens