By Marcus Flores
In the beginning, Roy Allen made root beer. He initiated the first of many A&W franchises in 1919, which allowed Americans to reside inside their first love—automobiles—while being served curbside. And in 1927, a young Mormon missionary and his wife franchised an A&W stand in Washington, D.C., innovating once again by adding hot foods to the menu. That man was John Willard Marriott, and his is the name now perched atop some 3800 hotels.
Mobility is by now interwoven in American DNA; we crave our fast food and would be unable to do without the hotel chains and modern automobiles that enable access to virtually all of the United States.
Yet U.S. cities—concrete jungles, to use an apt metaphor—are far denser and hence competitive than those of yore. Some entrepreneurs have responded by channeling the innovative spirit that once prevailed among the fast food pioneers. By adding a set of wheels to their operation, they have displeased some brick and mortar restaurants who view the mobile invaders as an encroachment on their business.
Is this a legitimate claim? It’s certainly under discussion here in Lexington.
Surely couples seeking a romantic evening at Dudley’s will not forego sautéed monkfish for a funnel cake from a street vendor, just as droves of inebriated students will not suddenly flock to Bellini’s following last call. The two classes of food service cater to different crowds at different times. But since they operate in a common space, and since food trucks vary in size from the wheelbarrow variety to that of a Fed-Ex truck, there is the additional fear that allowing them to gather in an entirely unregulated fashion would make a lobster tank of downtown Lexington.
Sean Tibbetts of the Bluegrass Food Truck Association (BFTA), however, says that although there are 12 active vendors in his association, there have been zero complaints about cluttering or cacophony. He adds, “To put that into perspective, I would have you look at Chevy Chase or one of the areas downtown where they have two or three beer trucks lined up delivering to four or five restaurants at once.” To be fair, an explosion in food truck popularity would probably result in occasional inconveniences—growing pains, in other words—with parking and related matters. Still, it is doubtful that a few food trucks would outdo those habitual traffic obstructionists known as UK basketball fans.
Along with sports teams and concerts, restaurants, particularly those with outdoor seating, strive to enliven downtown. That real estate isn’t cheap. And lately, financial conditions have not been propitious for, well, much of anything. Tibbetts, a war veteran, tried to get a loan but was told he needed 80 percent collateral, which is 80 percent of a restaurant, which in essence defeats the purpose of a loan. So he turned to mobile vending specifically to avoid such expenses. What he got was prickly patch of regulations and bureaucratic labors.
According to Tibbetts, the process begins with a zoning and compliance permit, a certificate of occupancy (price: $25), and an updated itinerant merchant license to reflect the address of vending (price: a $500 bond). Then it’s out to Newtown Pike to register with the Health Department (price: $25-30). (And, as if to intentionally complicate matters further, the Health Department interprets “address” as “physical location,” whereas the Zoning Commission uses traditional street addresses.) Hopefully through all this you also remembered to get your statewide mobile vendor license—another $120. Four hours and $900 later, the city says you can legally sell hot dogs.
…But only in certain areas. Tibbetts cannot sell to third-shift workers at places like Lexmark or Country Boy Brewing because they are industrially zoned. Even if, say, Country Boy gives him permission to vend on their premises, he cannot (so much for private property.) Downtown also has restrictions: there is a buffer area of 200 feet (two-thirds of a football field) one must honor when “near” an established restaurant.
Asked how difficult it is to make up the costs, Tibbetts replied laconically “We don’t.” Asked why he endures this odyssey in order to suffer a loss, he was equally concise: “It’s the right thing to do.” Is Tibbetts, therefore, Lexington’s Sisyphus? Not necessarily. Through repeated meetings with councilmembers, he has been able to influence legislation that aims to dispense with some of the impediments. A new ordinance that has gone before the Economic Development Committee will hopefully alleviate some of the hardships Lexington vendors face.
Good thing. Because with the way things are now, it is difficult to see any J.W. Marriotts or Roy Allens coming out of Lexington.