Mobile Food Units are now in Downtown Rochester- but does the Ordinance Stifle Food Entrepreneurship?

The welcoming of food trucks, or “mobile food units”, onto public property in downtown Rochester has been for many a slow, hair wrenching process.  Motorized or trailered movable food units are finally allowed in specific public zones in the downtown area.  But don’t expect to see large contingents of food trucks springing up in Rochester any time soon.

Most of us in Rochester-land know how this story began.  Last June, the very first food truck to operate in downtown Rochester, BB’s Pizzaria, was told they could not serve food in the Calvary Episcopal Church driveway because the drive was actually a public space.  A food truck operating in this region was against city ordinance.  Some downtown brick and mortar restaurants were outraged by the presence of the food truck, saying it was unfair competition.  Some members of the public were equally enraged because they just wanted new, affordable food options in the downtown area.

Fast forward to May 2016.  A revised ordinance permitting mobile food units in downtown Rochester was passed by the City Council, only to be vetoed by Rochester Mayor Brede on the grounds that the proposed tiered-fee structure was unfair to the more traditional downtown restaurant options.  Finally, in June yet another revised ordinance was passed allowing mobile food units in downtown under certain restrictions.

No matter where you stand on the issue, we all just want quality, affordable food options in Rochester. 

New Rochester city ordinance- 143A to be exact- permits food trucks in designated “mobile food unit zones” in the downtown area.  This includes space along 2nd Avenue SW during lunch hours, near Central Park and the Rochester Public Library during normal business hours, and along 2nd Street SW late in the evening.  All food trucks must cease operations by 1 AM.  Outside of downtown, food trucks can’t park within 150 feet from a restaurant property line.

To run a mobile food unit in downtown Rochester, operators have to shell out a $150 license fee plus a $1100 franchise fee, a total of $1250 in costs.  That doesn’t sound too steep at first glance.  But compared to the $818 fee in Minneapolis, it’s pretty high.

The first food truck in downtown Rochester, Back Alley Kitchen, rolled out on June 22nd alongside the Stabile building.  But that might be it for a long time.

Besides Back Alley Kitchen, “I don’t foresee anybody else outside of maybe one other getting the application to apply for this.  It’s just, it’s just too expensive,” explained Derrick Chapman, owner of the Twisted Barrel Wood Fired Pizza food truck.

“I think they had an opportunity to just look at what Minneapolis is doing and basically just mimic it. …I think I’m hopeful that maybe they’ll reevaluate it and look at it and say, ‘Maybe there are some things that we could have done better?’  But, no, like I said, I’m hopeful if that happens but I’m not crossing my fingers,” Derrick continued.

Mobile food units are a bit like homeless wanderers.  It sounds a little bit sexy and whimsical to drive your food truck from town to town, shoot the breeze with people on the street, and be in a new location every day.  But in reality, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.

The season lasts only a few months for food trucks, maybe from April to October in Minnesota if you’re lucky.  Even inside that timeframe, the weather has to be just right.  If it’s too windy, people won’t come out.  If it’s raining, people won’t come out.  If it’s too hot, people won’t come out.  You need a real contingent of food trucks all lining up in one place to really drive in business, otherwise people just don’t know where to find you on a regular basis.  Plus, you have a limited menu, limited operating space, and have to work at warp speeds.

Besides that, food trucks have to educate the consumer.  People have to realize that “it’s not five-dollar fair food.  And you’re actually getting a decent sandwich for eight dollars. …I think that’s the other thing that they’re challenging, is they can make a phenomenal food product, but getting people onboard to thinking about it is a little challenging,” explained Donovan Seitz, owner of Kinney Creek Brewery.

Food truck entrepreneurship has really been stifled in Rochester and the movement has been slow to take off.  It’s a huge risk that not many people have been able to take.

One place that has been fruitful for Rochester’s food trucks are the local breweries. 

“If you kind of look across the United States, breweries and food trucks pair well together because production breweries can’t have, typically, can’t have food a lot like the brewpubs can.  So it kind of marries a food option with a beer option,” said Donovan.

Kinney Creek has welcomed The Twisted Barrel and other food trucks to serve up some fresh food finds in the brewery parking lot since their opening.  But because food trucks as a whole have not yet gained momentum in Rochester, people don’t quite rely on their presence at the breweries yet, even on the weekends.  But, the food trucks “bring another element to Rochester.  The fresh, the new inspired cook that wants to do something different.  That’s what Rochester I don’t know necessarily needs, but I think it definitely has a thirst for it,” said Donovan.

Besides operating at breweries, Rochester food trucks have survived through catering, private parties, farmers’ markets and festivals like Rochesterfest where customers know they’ll be in one spot for an entire week.  The Twisted Barrel posts their locations every week on Facebook.

“I still think there are a fair number of restaurants out there that still think [the food truck operating fees are] too cheap because they have to pay to maintain sidewalks and they have property taxes.  But if given the opportunity, I would prefer to have a permanent location over being mobile and having a limited menu and no seating and being seasonal.  To me, that’s a fair trade off.  I would take on those expenses if I were able to,” said Derrick.

The food trucks aren’t trying to compete with downtown restaurants, Derrick affirmed.  They are just trying to provide a service that people want.

“We should all collaborate.  There’s no reason we should be fighting each other.  If somebody’s got a great product, why shouldn’t I encourage them to bring it to market?  Because guess what?  I’m going to spend my money with you if you have a good product that I don’t have in town because they’re keeping it local.  And the more money that stays in our local economy the better,” said Derrick.

We’re hopeful for the emergence of the food truck entrepreneur in Rochester.  Those people willing to take the risk that have previous restaurant experience.  Diversity and innovation has to be healthy for an ecosystem.

“If there’s people out there that are considering it, don’t let the ordinance scare you.  There are other ways you can make it work. …People need to take a chance on something.  With no risk, there’s no reward,” Derrick summed up.