Food Truck Decision Postponed; Merchants Continue To Debate Issue

By: Tim Wood

The Mom and Pops food truck. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – A decision on allowing a food truck downtown during the summer Mondays on Main music nights was postponed this week. The board of selectmen are tentatively scheduled to take up the topic June 24, pending submission of followup paperwork by the Chatham Merchants Association, the event sponsor, specifically regarding the food truck location and a traffic and pedestrian safety plan.

Selectmen last week reached a consensus to allow the Mom and Pops restaurant food truck during four of the nine nights of the weekly Mondays on Main event, but held off on a vote because it was not certain where the truck would be located.

At a hastily called forum last Wednesday, members of the merchants association, chamber of commerce and business owners debated the issue of having a food truck downtown during the summer. Sentiment was pretty much unchanged from last Tuesday's discussion before the board of selectmen, with several downtown restaurant owners asserting that a food truck would be unfair competition and would hurt their business, while supporters said the truck would provide more choices for those attending Music on Main.

Other than a zoning bylaw relegating food trucks to the industrial districts, the town lacks specific regulations dealing with the mobile food purveyors. The merchants sought a permit from the board of selectmen under a general bylaw governing the outdoor display of goods downtown, which allows exemptions for special events. While food trucks have been present downtown at other times, including First Night and Oktoberfest, opponents argue those were one-day events in the off season, unlike Mondays on Main, which happens every Monday night from July 1 to Aug. 26.

Chamber board member Scott Hamilton of Chatham Jewelers said a positive aspect of the situation was that it called attention to the lack of food truck regulations. He added that the merchants board had done a poor job of communicating the food truck plan to its members and with the chamber of commerce.

“The situation we're in could have been avoided if there was better communications with the membership at large,” he said. “We had had plenty of time to talk it through before this point” if members had been informed of the decision to have a food truck at the event back in March, when the board developed the plan.

There was “no functional public notice” of the proposal until it appeared on the selectmen's agenda last week, said David Oppenheim, owner of the Wayside Inn. Noting that past proposals for downtown trolleys had elicited significant public discussion, he said a food truck could have a similar impact on Main Street, and a decision shouldn't be made without a similar debate.

“It is something the entire town should be involved in,” he said, arguing that the decision should be postponed. “The time for this, in my opinion, is not 2019, it's 2020.”

Rebecca Segura, owner of Chatham Cookware, said she was bothered by the lack of transparency in the process.

Nobody was trying to slip a food truck into Mondays On Main, said Mom and Pops general manager Kyra Travis. The merchants invited the restaurant to participate, and given that food trucks had been allowed at other downtown events, “a precedent in our eyes had been set,” she said, adding, “I think we're all looking for clarity.”

Mom and Pops owner Tom Deegan said he felt the selectmen's compromise of four nights could “iron out the wrinkles” and help the board develop regulations for the future. He didn't want to ruffle any feathers, however, and said he'll abide by whatever decision is made. But “by not doing something, you're losing data.”

The food truck was initially going to be located at the Cape Cod Five bank, but that fell through. Alternative locations discussed last week included the Roundabout Gas and Eldredge and Lumpkin Insurance properties. Selectmen asked for a traffic and pedestrian safety plan as well as a specific location, and that information had been received by the deadline for this Monday's meeting, said Selectman Cory Metters. He acknowledged that a broader discussion about food trucks needed to happen “yesterday.”

Other business owners supported the food truck plan. Ashley Hansen of Hansen Business Solutions called it a “great thing to bring young people to town.” Ashley Bilodeau, owner of All Points Beautiful, hoped that a food truck stationed at the west end of Main Street could help attract people to an area that is often quiet most nights.

Merchant board members said the food truck idea was raised in reaction to feedback from those who attended last summer's inaugural Mondays on Main and said more food choices were needed during the event. Some said they left town because they could not get into restaurants.

Ducks in the Window owner and merchants board member Colette Cummings said the Mom and Pops food truck is likely to be a draw, and that many people who come to Mondays on Main may not shop or eat in restaurants that night, but are likely to return. While acknowledging the process could have been more transparent, the discussion “just feels kind of silly,” she said.