Portland food truck panel sets aside differences to shape recommendations

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PORTLAND — The city’s food truck task force is nearly ready to send its recommendations to a City Council committee.

Task force members said the work represents a compromise between restaurant supporters and food truck proponents.

The recommendations, if instituted as city policy, would restrict food trucks from operating on public property in much of downtown during the day. But truck operators would be allowed to negotiate with private property owners to set up during the day anywhere in downtown.

After 10 p.m., the trucks would have free reign of the city, except residential areas, but in all cases they would be required to remain at least 65 feet from operating restaurants.  

Reaching that compromise was a challenge for the task force members, who represent local restaurateurs, the downtown business district, city staff and food enthusiasts.

“There was a lot of protectionism for brick-and-mortar establishments,” said Sarah Sutton, a South Portland resident who operates Bite Into Maine, a truck that sells lobster rolls at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth.

Sutton was not a member of the task force, but was invited to attend the meetings and join in the discussion, the only person present who operates a food truck. Sutton said she hopes to expand her operation into Portland.

Richard Groton, president and chief executive of the Maine Restaurant Association, said Portland owes much of its current economic success to the risks and investments made by permanent restaurants, who are also major employers and taxpayers.

The owner of a permanent restaurant has “had to take a serious business risk, that I think in my view, the food truck sort of avoids,” Groton said. “We don’t want unfair competition.”

But even the restaurateurs on the task force were not easily stereotyped as pro or con food trucks. At least one, Steve DiMillo Sr., who operates DiMillo’s on the Water on Commercial Street, said in February that he hopes to start his own food truck operation, possibly using his restaurant to do the prep work.

The task force has met four times since March 6, and the debate focused on disagreements and where food trucks would not be allowed until the third meeting, members said.

Since that meeting, however, members have made an effort to find areas of agreement. At the most recent meeting, recommendations were unanimously supported, according to Andy Graham of the Creative Portland Corp.

“It’s exciting to see us find common ground so easily,” he said.

While Sutton said she wished that the recommendations opened more of the city’s high-traffic downtown areas to food truck operators, and that they would be granted the ability to use public parking spots when meters stop running at 6 p.m., rather than waiting until 10 p.m., she also felt the restrictions were warranted given the disagreements that have surrounded food trucks in other cities.

Elsewhere, the mobile kitchen trend has raised all the same questions that Portland officials and restaurant owners have faced, including parking, permitting, noise and power, and competition.

“I think it’s smart to look at what’s happened elsewhere and make a consensus, Sutton said. “So it doesn’t bother me too much, as long as everyone agrees with it.”

Task force members and participants like Sutton also agreed that food trucks are no more guaranteed to be successful than traditional restaurants, and that the city has a stake in the continued health of the dining industry and Portland’s reputation as a foodie city.

Even with a great seaside location in Cape Elizabeth, Sutton noted, her truck is “still responsible for letting people know we’re here and how good our product is.”

Abiding by normal parking regulations, as the recommendations would require, would make it virtually impossible for food trucks to operate efficiently on public property in most of the city anyway, Ron Gan, owner of the Skinny Cart BBQ food cart said. Gan said he has considered starting a food truck of his own and has scoured the city for the best places to set up.

There are only a few parking spots in city center that would accommodate a food truck in terms of size and access to potential customers, he said. Add in two-hour parking limits and the uncertainty of those spots actually being open, and “you physically can’t do it,” he said.

“Even a hot dog guy takes 40 minutes to set up,” Gan said. “So imagine you were doing some really cool food. It wouldn’t happen.”

The recommendations in some ways direct future food trucks straight towards areas where they will likely be successful, like Compass Park on the Maine State Pier, where food truck licenses would be available via a request-for-proposals system.

“That is like a tailor-made location for a food truck,” Gan said.

The task force has not finalized the public downtown streets that would be open to food trucks, but they will likely include parts of Spring Street and most of the Bayside area, as well as industrial areas off the peninsula – all neighborhoods with a significantly lower density of restaurants, although perhaps also fewer customers.

A disparity in licensing costs – $900 to park on city streets versus $500 to park on private property – would give economic incentive to food trucks to access the power grid rather than running less-clean electric generators, Graham said.

For now, the task force’s recommendations are far from set in stone.

The group will meet once more this month, at a so-far unscheduled time, to determine which public central areas will be designated for food trucks and to make final revisions to the other recommendations before sending them to the Public Safety, Health and Public Services Committee.

That panel will revise the recommendations before sending them to the City Council for final approval.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at acullen@theforecaster.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.