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Food truck phenomenon rolling into Durango?

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Corey Weigand, left, and Sean Daily of Home Slice Pizza work from Home Slice's pizza van during Durango Oktoberfest on Main Avenue.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

Walk around cities such as New York, Portland and San Francisco, and it’s hard to miss the clusters of brightly colored food trucks perched on corners and tucked between buildings.

Durango has yet to experience the full force of the food-truck phenomenon, but there’s reason to believe that soon may change. Several factors are at play, including city plans to address mobile vending in its planning code revisions, support for food trucks among elected officials at the city and diligent work by a few business owners to push for food cart-friendly regulations.

Currently, the city’s ordinances governing mobile vending are “a little prohibitive” for culinarily inclined entrepreneurs looking to start food trucks that would travel throughout the city, said Cory Kitch, owner of Home Slice Pizza. Kitch has a food truck that he has taken to special events such as the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and Oktoberfest. But several regulations or deficiencies in the city’s code pushed Kitch to buy a lot on North Main Avenue and park his truck there permanently instead of traveling around town.

In the future, he hopes to build a restaurant on the lot to free the truck to move around the city – if future ordinance changes will allow him, that is.

Meanwhile, other business owners around Durango have hesitated to jump into the food-truck arena because the city’s current regulations are too burdensome.

Fine-tuning the regulations

The city categorizes mobile vendors as temporary or permanent. Temporary vendors can operate only six months per year and must locate on appropriately zoned private property. Permanent mobile vendors must comply with the same regulations as brick-and-mortar restaurants, including property improvement requirements and connection to water and sewer lines.

The city’s planning department plans to examine the codes governing mobile vendors, which include food trucks, as a part of its work revising Durango’s Land Use Development Code.

“The reason is we’ve been getting a lot of interest on doing permanent mobile vending (in the last year), and we don’t have anything in our code that allows for it,” said Nicol Killian, a city planner. “It’s a new thing in cities similar to Durango.”

The city is looking at allowing different types of mobile vending on private property throughout the city but needs to decide what kinds of improvements vendors will be required to make on the lots, Killian said. In the new code, the city may try to differentiate between various types of mobile vendors and maybe be more relaxed about regulations for certain vendors such as food trucks, she said.

The city also will look at the possibility of mobile pods where multiple vendors locate on one property and share improvements.

The idea would be to make it a “little bit more innovative and easier for them,” Killian said.

Locationwise, the hope is to strike a balance so mobile vendors don’t negatively affect existing food establishments.

“We don’t want someone setting up on downtown Main Avenue and taking business away from Carvers, which has a building that meets all our codes,” she said.

Different purpose, different clientele

Several people, including Killian, noted that food trucks serve a different customer base than brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“I can understand concerns about competition with brick-and-mortar restaurants, but food trucks typically are serving a different market at a different price point, and can serve areas where the infrastructure costs and logistics of a brick-and-mortar establishment may not pencil out,” City Councilor Christina Rinderle wrote in an email. “Given the nature of our higher cost of living, they also provide an economical opportunity for families that wouldn’t otherwise choose to eat out.”

Food trucks also offer a lower cost of entry for people looking to get into the restaurant business for the first time, said Cynthia James Stewart, who runs the Harvest Grill & Greens at James Ranch. The food wagon serves burgers, sandwiches and salads using meat and produce from James Ranch.

A food cart was “the more simple route to go,” when she decided to start serving food at the ranch, Stewart said. Even so, meeting county regulations was no small task, she said.

Food truck potential

Carol Clark works at Fort Lewis College for most of the year but recently has spent summers delving into mobile food-and-beverage trucks. Her first project is a pub truck that features a mobile bar. The truck, which is manufactured with green materials, is solar-powered and runs on biodiesel, and it will be used for educational purposes, special events and private parties, Clark said. She hopes to debut it at Snowdown in February.

But Clark put her other food truck-related venture on hold until the city “changes its code and the code works,” she said.

She has put hours of research looking into ways other cities have allowed food trucks and sees a real possibility for them to enhance Durango, she said.

John Gutierrez, co-owner of Beto’s Fast Mexican Food, also sees great potential for food trucks to provide a “wealth of opportunity” for small-business growth. The restaurant owns a taco truck but has only used it at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge.

By setting up near business hubs around town, food trucks could minimize traffic in town and on weekend nights, Gutierrez said. His taco truck would be perfect to feed late-night crowds, he said. Gutierrez is an ardent supporter of revising the city’s regulations, which he said “stymie the little guys.”

“In today’s economy, we need a community that creates ordinances to support small businesses,” he said.

Killian, the city planner, said code revisions concerning mobile vendors should be ready for public comment early next year and City Council will vote on them in the spring.

“It’s a new thing for the city,” Rinderle said. “I’m excited to have that discussion.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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