Elkader revives mobile food truck ordinance debate

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


An old debate becomes new again as the Elkader City Council last week revisited a proposed mobile food vendor ordinance from 2019, after several complaints from local businesses concerned about the fairness of allowing mobile food vendors, who don’t pay property taxes like local brick and mortar stores, to operate without requiring a permit. 


According to council member Tony Hauber, who commented on the issue in a separate interview, he received a “myriad of complaints from restaurant owners that felt cheated by the taco truck that has visited Elkader on at least two occasions.” 


At the meeting, Hauber specified these complaints came from several individual businesses, including Johnson’s, who complained about the parking situation that occurs every time the taco truck sets up at Norby’s. He added that Fennellys’ Irish Pub stated “they have often objected to food trucks in general,” and Schera’s, speaking directly to Hauber, said “we need to do something about this taco truck.” 


In an email exchange, city administrator Jennifer Cowsert mentioned GEAR Elkader also expressed concern over mobile food vendors. 


The crux of the issue revolves around who is paying their fair share. According to Hauber, the opposed business owners would, for the most part, be satisfied, if the food vendors were required to pay for a permit. But mayor Josh Pope noted mobile food vendors already pay taxes in the state, as well as licensing fees. 


Pope also questioned whether the city has really had an issue, stating food trucks are often at other local businesses, including Mobile Track Solutions and RISE, and “nobody says anything about that.” 


The mayor also hinted at the possible slippery slope of the ordinance. “We start with the food trucks, then we go to tool trucks, then we can go to the parts trucks that come and have vending. So where do we stop? Isn’t the idea to draw those people here?” he asked. 


At one point, Hauber questioned whether the idea behind the ordinance was to eliminate choice for people in the market.


“We’ve got kind of two things here. We’ve got does the city get its cut. That’s a concern because properties pay taxes. And then there seems to be this other side that’s like, ‘it’s competing with my business so I don’t like it,’” Hauber continued. 


Council member Peggy Lane expressed less concern over the city getting its cut and more toward the businesses being impacted negatively. 


“I have a problem with them coming into town and taking business away from the businesses that are already here,” Lane said. 


Pope and Hauber noted the positive impacts mobile vendors can have, such as bringing people into town, getting people to go out and to the businesses that invite them. 


“There were a lot of people at the taco truck that weren’t from Elkader. I guarantee you that,” Pope added. 


“It’s not that I don’t understand the plight of the restaurants. I just don’t know if it’s our job to start getting in and regulating what people can do on their private property as far as it relates to the market,” Hauber said. 


In a separate interview, Hauber added, “I’m always concerned with local business. I love the restaurants here and don’t want to see them fail, but I’m also concerned with a council that tries to deter new business in town for the sake of the businesses that are already here. I understand there is a difference between a truck and a brick and mortar restaurant and their levels of investment in the town, but we should always focus on driving more people to spend in our economy than driving business out of it.” 


“I’m not anti-business in our town, but I do think we should be providing opportunities and choices and some different things…and I don’t want to be regulating private businesses,” said council member Bob Hendrickson. He added it would be a “huge mistake” not to allow food trucks to come to Elkader. 


Another issue at play is the time allotted to some local workers for a lunch break, which necessitates faster served lunches. Since they don’t have time to sit down at Johnson’s or Fennelly’s, a mobile food vendor is a benefit. 


Council member Daryl Koehn said, “My question is, a business like Fennellys’, you know they want business, but they can’t cater to the guys that are greasy, coming from work that have a half hour break…If those businesses want to try to accommodate those people with the half-hour lunch, if they can do that, then yes. Until then, let somebody else. A lot of these folks don’t have that half hour to sit down.” 


Hauber touched on this topic in the interview, stating, “Perhaps local restaurants can reach out to MTS/Moyna’s and see if there is a solution in which they could participate using prefix menus or doing food delivery…I’d like us to exhaust efforts of businesses collaborating privately before we turn to business deterrent regulation.”


The issue was tabled until updated input could be collected from the community.

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