2017-03-03 / Front Page

City council wants to open doors to area food trucks

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — With food trucks gaining mileage in surrounding towns, South Portland is looking to join the mobile meal parade.

At the city council’s Feb. 27 workshop, Councilor Linda Cohen said she first became aware of the rise in food trucks, particularly as a starter business for young people, when, as then president of the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce she saw Mainely Burgers score a Enterverge award for young entrepreneurs from the Greater Portland Regional Chamber. Mainely Burgers was founded in 2012 by Ben Berman and Jack Barber, both graduates of the previous year of Cape Elizabeth High School. Since then, Berman and Barber have parleyed their success to a second truck, and to a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., where they attend college.

South Portland allows food trucks, both stationary and mobile, on private and public property, but only when specially permitted for a so-called “special event.”

With the business model on her radar, Cohen began to pay attention when food trucks began taking up spots at the summer movie series put on by the parks and recreation department in Bug Light Park. Of note, she said, were evenings when the show got rained out.

“I was monitoring our Facebook page and the question that kept coming up was, ‘Are the food trucks still there?’” Cohen recalled. “They didn’t care so much about the movie, they just wanted to know of the food trucks were still there.”

With that in mind, and with more and more food trucks appearing in Portland and surrounding communities, Cohen requested the workshop on rules that would allow food trucks to operate in South Portland as a matter of course, not just at a one-off event.

“Why should Portland have all the fun?” she said. “Why can’t South Portland have some food trucks? Why can’t our residents and people who are visiting South Portland be able to experience the same kind of variety as people in other communities surrounding us?”

Councilor Maxine Beecher agreed.

“If there’s one thing people complain about at Wainwright Field, it’s that there’s no food, no drink, no nothing,” she said, adding that, she too, sees food trucks as the new hip, hot thing.

“The kids think these are just the end-all, cure-all,” she said. “I think we’re really missing the boat if we don’t bring these food truck places together.”

Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said zoning amendments offered at Monday’s workshop are based on similar rules recently adopted in Portland, as is a council policy, which would allow it to amend certain operational rules for food trucks from time-to-time without conducting a full overhaul of the governing ordinance.

As proposed, the new rules would prevent food trucks, other than mobile units like ice cream trucks, from operating within 500 feet of a restaurant.

“I really don’t see any downside to this,” Councilor Claude Morgan said, although he offered that any restaurant irked by the competition could easily put its own meals on wheels.

“It works both ways. It’s not a one-way street,” he said.

As drafted the new ordinance would apply only to food trucks that operate on public property, such as parks, streets and public parking lots. The council voiced broad support for the proposal. However, interim City Manager Don Gerrish said staff may need to tweak the ordinances definition of “special events” to better define how food trucks may continue to operate on private property, and for private functions in public areas.

“On a separate but closely related matter, the parks and recreation department, city clerk’s office, corporation counsel and the manager’s office are currently looking at the broader policy relating to public use of city property and facilities for weddings, parties, festivals, etc. — events for which the city is not acting as the primary event sponsor,” Gerrish wrote in a memo to the council. “The term ‘special event’ should be better defined, processes and procedures need to be updated, and we are also reviewing liability insurance requirements. Therefore, this specific issue relating to food trucks, should it progress, may become related to this broader issue.”

If and when an a council vote comes and the road for food trucks is unblocked, Mayor Smith said city staff should develop a “guidebook” for running a food truck business, similar to the one handed out in Portland.

“We should also issue invitations to all such business around, to come and do business in South Portland,” she said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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