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What The Truck? Grand Rapids considers new regulations for food trucks

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

This week Grand Rapids officials will debate whether food trucks should be allowed in the city. People will get a chance to weigh in on the proposed rules Tuesday night. The rules would allow food trucks but limit when and where they could operate.

Right now food trucks have to part of a special event, like ArtPrize for example. But some have found a way to operate in a sort of legal grey area under the same rules that mobile ice cream trucks operate.

"Someone puts their hand out and flags us down and says 'hey I want breakfast," Paul Lee, owner of What The Truck said. "We set up so we can cook them breakfast and as long as we continue to have customers at our window, we can be parked here."

Unlike an ice cream truck, Lee stays in this spot near a busy farmers market for hours. That wouldn’t be allowed if the proposed rules regulating food trucks are adopted. He also wouldn't be allowed to set up in front of this computer/antique shop or set up all these nice folding chairs on the sidewalk for customers to sit and eat. 

Under the proposed rulesWhat The Truck and other food trucks would have to find a spot on private property to park. They'd have to go through a pretty extensive process to get approval from the city planning commission, which would include gathering input from neighboring businesses and residents. Their hours of operation would be limited too. 

I should mention, Lee says the name 'What The Truck' stems from his frustrations with the city's regulations of food trucks. "It just seemed so restrictive that I don’t know how anyone could ever do it. The name came from kind of throwing our hands in the air saying, umm, what we probably shouldn’t say on air," Lee said with a smile. 

Lee is against the new regulation because they're even more restrictive. He says the rules could be particularly intimidating for people who speak English as a second language or who aren't really familiar with how city government works. "But that doesn't mean they couldn't be great at running a business," Lee said.

Grand Rapids' city planning director Suzanne Schulz admits “we’re taking a pretty conservative approach with this.” Schulz and the planning commission have been working to shape the controversial rules for several months. 

“We wanted to be sure that it was a little bit more stabile than kind of this very temporary vending thing coming in," Schulz said. 

That's because dozens of restaurant owners are uniting against the food trucks. They say the trucks will hurt their businesses and could lead to more vacant storefronts. 

Back in December I spoke with Patty Konwinski, a co-owner of The Dog Pit. The downtown hot dog restaurant employs 10 part-time workers. Konwinski says she’s not totally against food trucks, but she says there’s not enough foot traffic in Grand Rapids to support them.

“Other than restaurant and bar traffic we don’t have enough other events downtown yet,” Konwinski said, “We’ll get there, but we’re not there yet.”

Lee, who also owns The Winchester, a brick and mortar restaurant in Grand Rapids, doesn't buy that argument. “One is grab and go food and the restaurant is sit down table service," Lee said, "They're totally different customers with different needs." 

Lee says the libertarian public interest law firm The Institute for Justice has contact him about the proposed laws in Grand Rapids. The group fought local regulationson food trucks in El Paso, Texas earlier this year. Lee says he does not want to take any legal action, but will see how things go at city commission.

The commission holds a public hearing Tuesday night. It could ask Schulz's department to make changes to the proposed rules or it could set a date to vote on them as is. That would likely come later this month. 

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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