Forum Participants See Benefits Of Food Trucks In Chatham

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Business

The Mom and Pops food truck gave out free food to skirt a prohibition on food trucks in downtown Chatham during Mondays on Main in 2019. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Meals tax receipts from the first quarter of this year outpaced the same period last year by $85,000, just one indication that the restaurant business is recovering from the hit it took from the pandemic. Another sign was the near-impossibility of getting a reservation over the summer. There are numerous reasons for that, including more people willing to dine indoors, slower service and restaurants choosing to close a few days a week due to a lack of workers.

In all likelihood those trends will continue next summer. Could food trucks be a way to alleviate the pressure on brick and mortar restaurants?

A number of residents expressed that view Monday during a virtual forum on proposed mobile food vendor regulations.

“I don't see where the food trucks are going to hinder the restaurants, which are already at capacity or over,” said Jim Sullivan.

Food trucks fall under the outdoor sale of goods and are currently prohibited from operating in town except as permitted by the select board. They've been allowed to operate during special events such as First Night and Oktoberfest, but a proposal to have food trucks downtown during Mondays on Main two years ago sparked an outcry from brick and mortar restaurants.

Monday's forum was an opportunity for the select board to get feedback on how the public feels about food trucks, said chair Peter Cocolis. A set of draft regulations based on Needham's food truck rules were posted on the town's website as a basis for the discussion.

Needham's regulations prohibit food trucks from operating within 200 feet of a brick and mortar restaurant. A buffer that big “essentially wipes out the entire downtown,” said 400 Main owner Kristin Muller, leaving only a tiny sliver of Main Street where food trucks could operate.

“You're essentially shutting down our use of food trucks” under the draft regulations, said Chatham Merchants Association President Susan Dimm. Reducing the buffer, perhaps to 100 feet, might allow food trucks to operate downtown without directly impacting existing restaurants, forum participants said.

A provision could be included in the regulations allowing food trucks on Main Street during special events, Executive Secretary Shanna Nealy said. Mondays on Main could be one of those events.

Where food trucks would be allowed to operate is another question. Those participating in Monday's forum did not favor allowing food trucks to operate on the street, where they'd take away public parking and make already crowded roads and sidewalks worse. Concern was also expressed about taking up valuable parking in public lots. Business owner David Oppenheim suggested the Eldredge Garage property would be an appropriate location, since it has a “good size” parking area and would draw foot traffic to the east end of town.

Harding's Beach and the bike trail parking lot off Route 137 would also be appropriate locations for food trucks, Oppenheim said. Other suggested locations submitted by residents included Lighthouse Beach, Oyster Pond Beach, the weekly summer farmers market and Chatham Anglers games, said Nealy.

Forum participants also favored incentives, such as reduced permit fees or more location flexibility, for food trucks to operate in the offseason.

Peter Higgins, owner of the Dogfish Taco Co., suggested designating a location such as the elementary school where a variety of food trucks could set up on a regular basis to create a destination, similar to an area off Route 95 in New Haven, Conn., where dozens of food trucks operate daily.

“It would almost kind of make up a food court of food trucks,” Higgins said.

There were some cautious notes sounded during the one-hour forum. Concerns were expressed for the visual impact food trucks might have on town, as well as the need for adequate trash disposal.

The select board will consider the input from Monday's forum, develop a policy direction and come up with a set of draft regulations that will be the subject of a public hearing, Cocolis said. He hopes to have new regulations in place by next summer.

“Sooner than that if we can,” he said.