It’s a lucrative business model for some. Park a mobile trailer inside city limits in Soldotna for a few months out of the summer, feed the throngs of tourists, then park and close to avoid the expenses of staying open during the slower winter months. For the city, which depends primarily on sales tax to fund its services, the influx of new purchasing options could provide more revenue; meanwhile vendors can avoid the expense of building and maintaining a brick and mortar business.
But for some business owners, the influx of mobile food carts is a threat and they see the city’s efforts to streamline the permitting process for vendors as undermining the value of the city’s existing restaurants.
During a public hearing on an ordinance that would change the way the City of Soldotna grants permits to mobile food vendors, few of the restaurant owners who testified were in favor of mobile food carts being allowed within city limits at all, fewer still addressed the specifics of a proposed ordinance to streamline the permitting process for mobile vendors.
“There’s only so much money to go around,” said Pete Ischi, co-owner of Soldotna’s Dairy Queen. “We hang around all winter long, we pay our property taxes, we pay our sales taxes, we employ people 12 months out of the year; the (mobile) vendors don’t. The vendors come here when the gravy’s here and then they leave.”
Ischi and several others testified on Wednesday to the city’s Planning and Zoning commission. At issue are a series of changes set in an ordinance that the commission developed and sent to the City Council. If approved by the council, the changes to the city’s code would make it easier for mobile food vendors to operate in multiple areas throughout the city and operate for longer periods of time during the year. The current city 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 — a section that requires mobile food vendors to come up with a site plan, operate for no more than 110 days out of the year and repeat the process each time they move.
The changes were developed after 10 months of meetings and public hearings on current code, but when the ordinance went to the council on June 14 a group of restaurant owners asked the council for more time to weigh in on the proposed code. The council voted to push the ordinance back to Planning and Zoning for more feedback and during that hearing, several themes emerged.
One was that some business owners don’t think that food vendors are regulated to the same cleanliness standards as restaurant owners.
“We drove by a place the other night, the lights were on — their inside lights. There’s nobody around. They’re sleeping in there. They’re sleeping in their kitchen,” said Bobbi Stelljes, owner of Fine Thyme Cafe.
Stelljes asked if the mobile vendors had the same sanitation standards as restaurants.
“I’m just wondering, if they’re doing that in public, what are they doing behind closed doors,” she said.
Others said the temporary signs and carts seemed counter to the city’s beautification standards.
“I would be surprised that the beautification committee would even want all these little vans and trailers littered throughout your town. When the tourist comes into town, they see that,” Ischi said. “I didn’t think that was what beautification was.”
Finally, several said that brick and mortar business owners put in more work and were therefore more entitled to the influx of summertime cash.
“We weather everything,” said Dena Cunningham, owner of three McDonald’s franchises on the Kenai Peninsula. “We weather the storms, the disaster fishing seasons, the road construction. Roundabouts. Beautification projects, the signage issues, all of that. We weather all that, take the good and the bad and at the end of the year, hopefully (we) have a profit. For a mobile food vendor, I think it’s a disservice to allow them to come in — really at the height of the season — and skim from the top.”
Cunningham said the city should consider limiting the types of food a mobile cart could offer in proximity to restaurants that sell similar food.
Planning and Zoning commissioners said they would oppose limiting what type of food a vendor could offer.
“I would be opposed to any sort of regulation on what business could be where,” said commissioner Dan Nelson. “That’s a free market thing.”
Commissioners also discussed whether the city could enforce sanitation issues that were typically under the purview of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“I don’t want to eat at a place that has dirty hands and whatnot, but that’s not something the city really has any control over,” Nelson said. “We don’t have any control over whether somebody runs their business in a seasonal way or a part-time way or a retirement job or any one of those different options.”
The proposed ordinance would amend city code to require that vendors display their DEC certification alongside the permit to operate within city limits.
Not everyone who attended the meeting was opposed to mobile food vending.
Nicki Blunt, owner of Black Jaxx Barbeque, said she had been operating in Soldotna for four years and lived in the community for 35. She disputed the notion that mobile vendors weren’t held to high sanitation standards.
Blunt said her stand had been inspected by DEC, was required to have running water, access to a bathroom and a waste management plan. She said she is required to have a food manager’s license and each of her employees has to have a food handler’s card from DEC.
“I can understand the like-to-like (complaint) — not having a hamburger stand by a hamburger place, that makes all the sense in the world,” Blunt said. “Some of this does not make a lot of sense. … We pay our sales tax, we pay our property tax. We pay all of the things everyone else pays.”
Blunt said the mobile vendors weren’t trying to steal business from other year-round shops.
“We don’t try to take anything away from anyone else, we are a different option,” she said. “That we’re just taking the cream of the crop and running is untrue. We work hard every single day for what we earn.”
Odies owner Megan Schaafsma said she supported the idea of well regulated and properly permitted mobile food carts in the city.
Schaafsma said business owners should focus on the growing culture of people who spend more money in restaurants and bars than they do in grocery stores.
“Competition creates quality every time,” she said. “Quality is what’s going to bring more people to our community.”
The Planning and Zoning commission voted to send its ordinance back to the City Council unchanged with the caveat that it would hold a public hearing on the issue in a year if the council approved the code changes.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens