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South Bend initiative aims to make it easier for food trucks to start up, grow

An easier environment for food trucks to start up and grow may be on the horizon for South Bend.

Gavin Ferlic, a South Bend city council member at large, has been working with the Department of Community Investments to make it easier to start a food truck in South Bend.

“Food trucks are a really positive way for an entrepreneur to start a culinary business,” Ferlic said. “The barrier to entry is relatively low, in terms of starting a restaurant in a food truck, and I think it provides a greater diversity to the culinary options in our community. I think it would be fantastic.”

Ferlic and the Department of Community Investments have been talking about creating an ordinance to make it clear food trucks are allowed for about eight months now, said Chris Fielding, assistant executive director for the Department of Community Investments.

“There’s no specific ordinance that says they can’t have food trucks, but there isn’t anything that says they can,” Fielding said. “We want to make it clearer what they can and can’t do.”

They are hoping to get the ordinance to a vote by either the June 22 or July 13 city council meetings, Fielding said.

Some of the main things that will be defined in the ordinance are what a food truck is, where they can park and what kind of kitchen food must be created in.

Fielding shared some of the stipulations they have outlined so far:

  • Must get 80 percent of their revenue from the sale of food.
  • Can buy a special class parking permit so they can park in two-hour parking zones from 10-2, which gives them time to set up and break down.
  • Can’t park sideways in spots or serve out of the rear of the truck into the street.
  • Can park in end spots with adjacent sidewalks and parallel parking spots open to the sidewalk.
  • Food must be prepared in commercially approved kitchens.

“There’s so much involved with it,” Fielding said. “Everyone has a question we hadn’t thought of.”

Although other cities, like Bloomington, Ind., Boston, Chicago and Seattle, have passed ordinances making it harder for food trucks to operate, Ferlic said South Bend businesses have been open to the idea of bringing food trucks in.

Ferlic said many of them see it as an opportunity to “grow the pie.”

“Maybe some other communities feel like it provides a platform for unfair competition but I don’t think South Bend or business owners in South Bend see it this way,” he said. “The community can grow the pie and provide diverse ways to provide entertainment, food and living options to make our community stronger.”

Mark McDonnell is founder and president of the South Bend Downtown Dining Alliance and proprietor of downtown restaurants LaSalle Grill and LaSalle Kitchen and Tavern. He said that for South Bend to be a “hip city,” there has to be food trucks.

“I think it is a trend that is moving inward from the coast,” McDonnell said. “And groups of younger people – Notre Dame grads and millennials – are making a concerted effort to make South Bend a hip city. I’m totally in favor of that.”

He said having food trucks in the city would help to bring the creative class – technologically advanced, young entrepreneurs – to South Bend.

“New restaurants by young entrepreneurs are popping up in what was the worst, most decayed part in downtown [Detroit],” McDonnell said. “I think food trucks are all part of that.”

McDonnell said he doesn’t share the concerns of some restaurants in other cities that food trucks will take his business away, because LaSalle Grill takes more reservations than walk-ins.

“You don’t go out for your anniversary to a freakin’ food truck,” he said.

Phil West, the owner of Chesterton-based Hungry INC food truck, said while he hasn’t spent much time in South Bend, he is hoping to be able to expand and open a commissary kitchen there in the future.

“I do believe that area is ready for food trucks,” West said.

West has been working with Hobart, Valparaiso and Michigan City to create ordinances to make it easier for food trucks to start – similar to what South Bend is working to do.

West said when he parks his food truck, he has strict guidelines for where it can be parked so he doesn’t impose on other businesses. He makes sure to talk to the city to set up operation agreements and only operates on private property as an invited guest of that business.

He doesn’t operate on public streets, parking lots or other public use areas, unless specifically permitted. He also makes sure not to operate within 50 yards of any similar brick and mortar restaurant.

“I want to raise the bar and create a responsible level of communication that’s good for the community and the business,” West said.

Doug Murray, owner of the Wiener Shack food truck, also said he hasn’t worked a lot in South Bend, but he was familiar with the ordinance Ferlic and Fielding are working on. 

“They say they’re trying to make it easy to obtain the license, because they say they want food trucks there,” Murray said. 

However, he said finding a parking spot to operate out of in downtown could be difficult, if that’s what the ordinance ends up allowing. 

“If a spot is taken, have to go find another spot, somehow let everyone know where I’ll be at,” he said. “It sounds nice, but could be hard to find a parking space.”

Follow reporter Kara Berg on Twitter at @karaberg95.

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