The food truck phenomenon sweeping cities across the nation has begun to roll into the south suburbs, and while happy patrons are eager to feast on the food specialties it brings, some communities are rethinking how they might regulate them.
These mobile restaurants must abide by state and federal hygiene codes, just like their stationary counterparts, and in addition must have a local hawker’s or peddler’s license. Some towns, like Raynham, don’t allow them at all. Others, including Westwood and Scituate, are either adding new policies or rewriting the old ones to impose more stringent oversight.
In Westwood, Captain Marden’s Seafood had been trying for eight months to get permission to park its “Cod Squad’’ truck on Perwal Street, in front of the company’s wholesale distribution center, to sell fresh cooked seafood two days a week. Earlier this month, the town passed an ordinance regulating such activity after taking input from the company, as well as local public safety officials.
The new bylaw says mobile vendors must comply with the same rules as their brick-and-mortar competitors. That means having a fixed location, submitting a business plan, and passing all inspections deemed necessary by the Westwood Fire Department, the police, and Board of Health, before selectmen will sign off, said Town Administrator Michael Jaillet.
“We got involved because of this truck proposed for Westwood,’’ Jaillet said. “The general concern is that this is new and we may not have worked out all the bugs, but we think we have all the major issues covered.’’
Captain Marden’s vehicle is equipped with a pair of picnic tables that encourage patrons to sit and stay awhile, said Terri Beal, the company’s business director. “It’s about psychology, camaraderie, and community,’’ Beal said. “People love food, and they love fun. Put them together and I see complete strangers who have worked next door to each other for years sharing a meal, and exchanging business cards.’’
The Cod Squad is already a viable presence in Natick, Needham, and Wellesley, where it stops several days a week, she said. The family-owned company opened its restaurant in 1945 on Wellesley’s Linden Street and has grown to include a takeout operation, frozen entrees, and a shipping component, she said.
Scituate also recently rewrote its policy on food trucks, said selectmen’s administrator Kim Donovan. The town only licenses hot dog, lemonade, and ice cream carts, she said.
Under the new rule, food trucks must be at least 300 feet from a business that sells a similar product, and anyone running a mobile business must get a state license, which includes a background check and requires them to pay meals and state tax. If the truck is to be on town land, a town license is needed as well, the policy states.
“Our selectmen feel very strongly that they do not want to impose on our stationary restaurants,’’ Donovan said.
Hingham has 10 mobile vendors, with the Away Cafe, owned by David and Pochanart Ericson of Weymouth, which has set up at the South Shore Industrial Park for several years now, being the only mobile restaurant truck in town, said Hingham executive health officer Bruce Capman.
But on holidays like the Fourth of July, the number of smaller vendor trucks and carts skyrockets to 40 or more, Capman said. The town tightly regulates mobile and temporary opportunities, he said, and has had to turn many away.
“I’ve had people come in and want to put up a card table with a deep fryer for donuts,’’ he said. “We don’t want to take away opportunities, but we also don’t give in to anything’’ that will jeopardize the public health.
Duxbury Town Manager Richard R. MacDonald said food trucks aren’t an issue in the seaside town that is 97 percent residential. “We have a couple of hot dog carts at our beach, but that’s about it,’’ he said. “Selectmen take requests on a case-by-case basis.’’
In Raynham up until 2002, mobile vendors were allowed between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., Town Administrator Randy Buckner said. But then a new, somewhat self-contradictory rule was enacted prohibiting all hawkers and peddlers except ice-cream vendors.
“Paragraph 1 says they must register with the Police Department, but then Paragraph 2 prohibits them,’’ Buckner said. “My understanding is that the town wanted to protect the tax-paying businesses established in town from transient vendors of everything from furniture to flowers to bad Elvis paintings on black velvet.’’
Health agent Alan Perry said although Raynham has no food trucks, the challenge with any mobile business is making sure the quality of the product is consistent from its origin to the customer’s plate. He said there are many ways patrons could get sick unless food is handled and stored correctly and cleanliness is a top priority.
There are no food trucks in Lakeville, either, said Town Administrator Rita Garbitt. But next door in Middleborough, Brian Slowik runs his Acushnet-based mobile fish market Wednesday through Saturday in the Route 28 parking lot of Lorenzo’s Italian restaurant. Slowik also owns two mobile units that sell cooked seafood in the Fall River and New Bedford area.
Diversifying is critical in hard times, even in the food truck business, Slowik said, so he carries a range of seafood items, including gluten-free fish and lobster cakes, to accommodate special diets.
“It’s a tough economy, but things are going well,’’ he said. “It’s funny how when things get tough you go backwards. I remember mobile carts on the street when I was little and a man selling rags.’’
But not every town is receptive to the food truck concept, Slowik acknowledged. “Some think this is on the ghetto side. But we have hot and cold running water and a three-bay sink.’’
Slowik also has a bathroom in the fish-market truck, which Middleborough health agent Jeanne Spalding said is a critical component of the health code. Mobile vendors must either have their own facilities, or permission to someone else’s, a common requirement, she said.
Spalding said she has no issues with Slowik’s business. “If someone is legitimate, knows what they are doing, and convinces us they can operate safely and in compliance, we’ll give them a shot,’’ she said. But Selectman Allin Frawley said the town’s bylaw regulating food trucks could use updating, because such vendors aren’t required to pay taxes in their host community.
“Barring a new law, the town can’t do anything about it, and there is a clear disadvantage to the businesses that do call Middleborough home and pay their share of taxes,’’ he said.
Beal contends food truck vendors do pay more than their fair share of local taxes.
“We pay DOT tax, property tax for our commissary headquarters in Westwood, employee taxes, as well as all of the fees associated with local permits and licenses for fire, police, health, building, public works, and also fees associated with farmers markets, special events [like the Food Truck Festivals of New England], and more,’’ she said.