Selectmen Dive Into Food Trucks Regulations

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Business

The Mom and Pop's Burgers food truck was at the final Mondays on Main event last month and drew a large crowd. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM Selectmen have a number of concerns about allowing food trucks to operate in town—from traffic and congestion to competition with established restaurants—but they haven’t closed the door on the idea. Working with business leaders, the board Monday said it hopes to have a bylaw in place to regulate food trucks before next summer’s visitor season.

Selectman Cory Metters said that it was time for the town to have a policy on mobile food vendors, but that policy needs to be crafted carefully.

“We’ve got to be very conscious of locations, and the expenses that brick and mortar companies [have],” he said. Since fixed restaurants and stores pay a premium to rent space in downtown buildings, and because they pay taxes locally, any fees charged to food trucks should be commensurate, Metters argued. While competition is good for businesses,“I don’t want to have an unfair playing field,” he said.

Metters also argued that food trucks should be restricted to operating during special events, rather than on an ongoing basis. Local merchants and abutters should also be consulted to gauge food trucks’ impact on parking and litter, he added.

Board Chairman Shareen Davis said she favors keeping an open mind about mobile vendors.

“As an art gallery owner, I had art shows around me all the time,” and she found that it helped business, Davis said. In addition to consulting downtown businesses, “we also need to think about the public in general and what they’d like to see,” she said.

A new bylaw specific to mobile food vendors is probably the best approach to regulating food trucks, Selectman Dean Nicastro said. The regulations should distinguish whether a food truck is located on public or private property, its times and dates of operation and the impact on parking. It should also consider the character of downtown Chatham, he said.

“We should also make sure that we don’t come up with a bylaw that allows the downtown area to become a kind of honky-tonk area,” Nicastro said.

Enforcing any new bylaw will also be key, he said. Before this year’s Independence Day parade, one ice cream vendor came to the board of selectmen to obtain the proper license, but on the day of the parade, there were “several competitors out there who never came to the town,” Nicastro said.

“We can’t have food trucks lined up and down Main Street, obviously,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said. Allowing them to operate during special events is quite different from permitting their regular use. Two food trucks were on station during First Night and were a popular option, he noted.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said the bylaw should consider the impact on downtown Chatham, but shouldn’t be limited to that area. Dykens said he would love to see food trucks present at local beaches during the summertime.

“Families love it, kids love it,” he said. He suggested that the town do what it can to encourage “tasteful, high-grade food trucks,” possibly providing an incentive for locally owned companies.

“Chatham can do this well,” Dykens said.

The recent Art of Charity event had two food trucks, which were well received, he added. And during the tornado, Mom and Pop’s Burgers sold food from their truck at their West Chatham restaurant during the power outage.

“It was jammed and they did a good job,” Dykens added.

Davis said any bylaw should require food trucks to meet all insurance and permitting requirements from agencies like the health department, police and fire department. “I think limiting numbers is probably a practicality for the downtown area,” she said, though she agreed with the idea of encouraging food trucks at the public beaches. Davis said she would like to learn more about how other towns regulate mobile food vendors, and whether their restaurants have reported losing money because of them.

Resident Norma Avellar said the issue is complex and “smacks of discrimination and jealousy.” She agreed that some transient vendors come to Chatham to make money and don’t pay taxes or rent. If the town moves ahead with permitting food trucks, “Limit to local people,” she said. “Our people need work.”

David Oppenheim, owner of the Chatham Wayside Inn, encouraged the board to focus on “under-served areas” of the town like beaches. He praised the selectmen for opening a dialogue on the topic. “Will you satisfy everybody? Not a chance,” he said. “Hopefully it’s resolved one way or another in time for next year.”

In June, the Chatham Merchants’ Association had planned to have the Mom and Pop’s food truck present at its weekly Mondays on Main event downtown, but scrapped those plans at the direction of the chamber of commerce’s board of directors, following complaints by some restaurant owners. At the final Mondays on Main, Mom and Pops had its truck located on private property and gave away food samples rather than selling them, obviating the need for a permit from the town. The truck was sponsored by several local business people.

Andy Baler, owner of Bluefins Sushi and Sake Bar, said he was surprised to see the vehicle “30 feet from my back door.” The truck caused “mayhem,” Baler said. “You couldn’t park, you couldn’t drive down Kent Place.” He encouraged selectmen to craft a careful bylaw, possibly giving a preference to local businesses. “They just have to meet the criteria. And you do have certain places in town that could really use this,” he said. “I am not against food trucks,” Baler added.

Chatham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Cavanaugh said she is glad the town is taking up the topic of food trucks.

“I think that we have a great opportunity here” to do something good for many people in the town, she said. Cavanaugh offered to take part in any group or discussion related to food trucks.

At the direction of selectmen, town staff will collect information from surrounding towns. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said department heads would meet on the topic and provide additional information for the board to consider.