Soldotna’s food offerings are growing and the city is considering a change in regulations to make it easier for mobile vendors to operate within city limits.
The Soldotna City Council will hold a public hearing, on Wednesday, on an ordinance that would make it easier for mobile food vendors to operate in multiple spots throughout the city, and for longer than has been allowed in previous years.
The current municipal code does not have specific zoning standards for mobile food vendors. City officials have been using a section designed for temporary use permits. That section of the code is not designed for mobile use and can make traditional mobile food vending difficult, said Soldotna City Planner Stephanie Queen.
Under the current code, mobile food vendors must identify a single location to operate, submit a site plan and re-apply for a permit for each new location. They are also limited to 110 days of operation in a calendar year.
“It’s really set up for a big blowout event, not for someone who is going to operate like a mobile vendor and needs to be able to move around,” Queen said. “I think the site plan added a lot of burden to folks and a lot of burden to the administration and we felt like it wasn’t necessary.”
Under the proposed code changes, the requirement to file a site plan is eliminated and food vendors are just required to get permission from the property owner.
“We think that’s good for us and good for business,” Queen said.
Operators will also be able to sell food from mobile carts for an entire calendar year rather than being limited to 110 days, according to the code update.
Some things will remain the same if the new code is adopted.
Operators must be registered to collect sales tax with the Kenai Peninsula Borough and they’ll still be required to show a permit issued from the Alaska Division of Environmental Health. That permit, in addition to the one the city issues must be displayed in the unit.
A $50 permit fee still applies and food vendors cannot be in right-of-ways or create hazardous vehicle or pedestrian conditions. They’re also required to get the permission of the property owner before setting up to operate.
Currently, there are 11 mobile food service operations that maintain valid permits through the Division of Environmental Health close to or inside of Soldotna city limits, those include Black Jaxx Bar BQ, Blue Moon Burgers, Hot Dogs A La Carte, AK Taco Shack and Thai Asian Mobile.
Queen said there are 6 mobile food vendors currently operating in the city. Those vendors will not have to reapply for permits if the new rules are adopted by the city council, rather they’ll be automatically included under the new rules.
Harlene Bartlett, who co-owns Blue Moon Burgers with her husband, parks her bright red trailer in the parking lot of Kenai River Brewing, 241 N. Aspen Drive. She and her husband moved the burger stand into the city limits in 2015 after spending all year just outside of city limits in 2014.
The two decided to stay outside of Soldotna, in part, because the city’s regulations were cumbersome, Bartlett said.
When a city administrator asked her why she stayed away from city limits, Bartlett told him that the regulations were “a little crazy” and sales tax was messed up.
“Everybody was outside of the city limits at that point because of the old way they were doing things,” she said.
But, the two lost their place to park in 2015 and had to find a new spot — which necessitated a move into the city. Bartlett said she had attended a work session with the city as it revamped its rules and was more comfortable with the process.
While she’ll be in the same place all summer because she wants her customers to know where she is located, Bartlett said the new regulations could help mobile food vendors move around the city and handle higher volumes of traffic.
“I’ve got one fryer,” she said, with a laugh. “ It’s a little slower pace for me here. If I had six people coming up to my window, it would take me awhile.”
Bartlett said she appreciated the chance to weigh in with the city and thought that the new regulations might attract more mobile food vendors into the area.
“The old rules were based on somebody building a building, not parking a food trailer,” she said.
The city has yet to receive any complaints about where the mobile food vendors have been located in the past, but one new section of the code is designed to keep carts from being parked when not in use.
Mobile food businesses operators will not be allowed close for more than five consecutive days without leaving their sites.
“Some asked ‘what’s to prevent people from parking and storing a mobile vending unit on a site even if they’re not open?” Queen said.
Certain types of mobile vending units will be exempted from the new regulations. Queen said the new policy would not apply to big events at the park, like the upcoming Kenai River Festival.
“Our parks department has their own process for reviewing events and permitting and use of parks,” she said. “This is just for other commercial properties in town. If folks are part of a market or another big event, they won’t have to worry about getting our permit.”
The Soldotna City Council will hold a public hearing before discussing and potentially adopting the new regulations on Wednesday at 6p.m. in the council chambers, 177 Birch.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens.