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Food trucks roll on, but maybe not through Williamsville’s downtown

Alicia Mauer is a barista at Starbucks on Main Street in the Village of Williamsville, but she gets an occasional kick out of buying a tasty meal at a roving food truck.

If it were in her power, she would have more restaurants on wheels not far from where she works in the Village Square area.

“I like the variety,” Mauer said of the trucks’ diverse offerings. And they often provide a good bang for the buck.

Despite that, food trucks are far from a ubiquitous sight on what is one of the busiest thoroughfares in Western New York. Because of the high volume of traffic, some in the village are clamoring to have the food trucks more stringently regulated, or possibly even banned from Main Street. Those critics make it seem like there is a food truck on every other corner in the village, said Mayor Brian J. Kulpa.

“But if you look up and down Main Street, there really is more of a lack of food trucks,” Kulpa said.

Whether or not a problem exists now or may crop up in the future, the Village Board on Monday will hold a public hearing on a proposed law to regulate mobile food vehicles.

“What I perceive as a potential problem for us isn’t so much the food trucks themselves as it is just addressing general safety and taking precautions as a village,” Kulpa said.

The village opted out of coverage under the Town of Amherst’s transient business law that was adopted in September 2012. For now, all food truck vendors who want to operate in the village are required to do is file for a peddler’s permit through the mayor’s office.

“The mayor’s permit does not mandate that you have an annual inspection done by our fire inspectors,” Kulpa said.

That would change under a proposed law requiring food truck operators to submit to an annual safety inspection and pay a $200 annual registration fee for each of their vehicles that does business in the village.

“I, myself, think we have a responsibility to make sure that food trucks, like anything else in our village, are operated in a safe manner,” the mayor said.

However, safety may not be the uppermost issue in the minds of some who operate traditional “brick-and-mortar” businesses. For them, quashing competition from intruding mobile businesses appears to be the more likely aim, according to Tara Cadmus, owner of Sweet Jenny’s Ice Cream on Main Street.

Cadmus, who sits on the board of directors of the Williamsville Business Association, said the association recently took a vote to recommend that village lawmakers ban food trucks from operating on public streets, citing the possible danger they could pose if one of the trucks were to catch fire and ignite one of the many historic wooden structures in the village.

“I don’t have a stake in this food truck thing,” Cadmus said. “But when the business association passed it and said that’s their position, they don’t want any food trucks on Main Street, they didn’t even pretend that it was about safety or anything like that.”

Cadmus said she has seen postings on Facebook from some opponents who acknowledged they did not want the competition from food trucks because the roving businesses don’t pay rent or pay the same property taxes as brick-and-mortar restaurants in the village.

“It’s not a legitimate argument,” Cadmus said.

“For a business association to come out and take that official position, I’m embarrassed to be a part of that,” she added.

Williamsville Association Chairman Frank Mischler confirmed that the board last month did pass a motion recommending a ban on food trucks that would take them off all public streets in the village.

“They could be in an office parking lot or something like that. The motion was they would not be allowed on public streets, and that was mainly because of the safety issue,” Mischler said.

He said allowing the trucks to operate in parking lanes on busy Main Street could pose a danger for pedestrians whose ability to see oncoming traffic, he said, may be blocked if they walk behind or in front of a food truck.

Otherwise, he said, the consensus of the association is that more food trucks in the village is an inevitability.

“We do have one member who already has a food truck – Anderson’s Frozen Custard – and another is thinking of doing a food truck. You know, it’s kind of hard to say we’re opposed to it when one of our members is actually, you know, participating,” Mischler added.

Meanwhile, the mayor stressed that the intention of the proposed law is far from stifling the presence of food trucks or barring them from operating near brick-and-mortar establishments.

“I don’t see how you could legally limit it. Even if I wanted to, I just don’t see how that’s constitutionally legal to tell somebody you can’t do business there because there’s another business nearby,” Kulpa said.

He acknowledged that businesses have mixed opinions, with some seeing food trucks as a threat, and others considering them an enhancement to their own business. Kulpa said some restaurants, such as the Eagle House, even invite food truck operators onto their property to augment their own kitchen services.

“I’ve seen them have food trucks servicing after hours in their parking lot,” Kulpa said.

Food trucks are already prevalent during the weekly “Music on Main” events held every Thursday, he added, and entities like Saints Peter & Paul Church rely on food trucks to sell meals at some of their fundraisers. “I don’t want to limit businesses and not-for-profits from the ability to utilize food trucks as a tool to enhance their operations,” Kulpa said.

Mitchell M. Stenger, an attorney for the Western New York Food Truck Association, said Friday he was not previously made aware of the Village Board’s plans for a local law to regulate food trucks. He said he will be “seeking a dialogue with village trustees and local stakeholders.”

As was the case in Buffalo and Amherst, Kulpa anticipates it will take months for the Village Board to hash out a law regulating food trucks that is satisfactory to everyone. The mayor said he is personally against a proposal in the draft bill that calls for the imposition of a $50 fire prevention permit fee every time a food truck does business on private property.

“They’re already licensed,” said Kulpa. “If they have gone through the inspections, we shouldn’t hit them again on every other use. That would be onerous on nonprofits and other fundraisers.”

Monday’s public hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. during the Village Board’s regular business meeting in Village Hall, 5565 Main St.


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