June 13, 2012

Waffle truck prompts food pilot project, change

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cravetruck

By Chad Garland/For CU-CitizenAccess

When is an ice cream truck not an ice cream truck?  According to Mahomet resident Zach Ware, it’s when it sells waffles and coffee.

Ware’s business – the Crave Truck – has prompted Champaign city officials to not only revisit ordinances surrounding peddler’s licenses but also to launch a pilot project to study the impact of food trucks like the Crave Truck that operate more like a small restaurant rather than an ice cream truck.

City officials are set to meet June 26 to discuss it.

But what’s prompted potential local policy change started out as something different.

In August 2011, when he was a high school senior in need of a summer job, Ware started the Crave Truck, a mobile café offering coffee and what he calls “street waffles” – a take on a Belgian waffle with a variety of toppings – from public parking spaces along the streets of Champaign and Urbana.

At that time, Ware applied for and received a peddler’s license in Champaign for $200 plus a $25 application fee. He also sought and received additional guidance on the various legalities of his enterprise from Champaign officials including City Clerk Marilyn Banks, Mayor Don Gerard and Police Department Sergeant Donald Shelton.

Since then Ware has hired six friends and family members as employees, including his mother, Marisa Anstey. He and the Crave Truck have also built a following on city streets as well as on Twitter and Facebook.  Champaign City Council members-at-large Deb Frank Feinen and Karen Foster are followers.

On May 15, Ware won a Young Entrepreneurs Video Contest through the National Federation of Independent Business. (story continues below)

But also on May 15, when Ware applied to have his Champaign peddler’s license renewed, he said was he was surprised to learn that it would cost $225 per Crave Truck employee who handles money, which could amount to as much as $1,575 in fees ($1,350 more than he paid the previous year).

Ware said he was also told he could no longer park at meters or on public rights of way.

“What the city clerk said when I went in to talk to her was, unequivocally, ‘You are not to park on city streets or parking meters,’” Ware said. “Which is why I was so, like, shocked.”  Ware said that when he initially spoke with Champaign officials about the Crave Truck, both Mayor Gerard and CPD Sergeant Shelton had given him the okay to park at city meters.

Ware said the current codes are so-called “ice cream truck rules,” which allow food peddlers to stop briefly, make a sale and then move on. He said he could not possibly set up and break down his mobile restaurant as quickly as the codes require, adding that his truck has never been cited or even warned by the city about operating on city streets or about parking at local meters.

As a result of his May 15 meeting with the city clerk, Ware considered no longer doing business in Champaign.

Saying that “Urbana can’t sustain the business alone,” he shared the news with his online followers:  “JUST IN- Champaign City Clerk reinterpreting food peddler ordinance- We are NO LONGER allowed to be at parking meter…this means Crave Truck will either sell the brand to another city or move elsewhere…hellooooo Chicago!!!

Response from the community, including some local politicians, was swift –

Council Member Feinen (@debfrankfeinen), via Twitter on May 15: “We want you to continue to succeed it is a fairly new issue for us but we will get it worked out I am sure”

Council Member Tom Bruno (@TomBruno), via Twitter on May 15: “I’ve indicated my support for a [City Council] study session…” to review the ordinance.

Mayor Gerard (@dongerard), via Twitter on May 16: “I have contacted city dept heads to express my dismay and desire to address ASAP.”

The study session is now scheduled for June 26.

In the interim, the city has established a “Mobile Food Truck Pilot Project” that includes a discounted license fee of $50 plus a $25 application fee and will allow the businesses to operate in Downtown and Campustown in loading zones and a portion of the parking lot at the corner of Neil and Washington Streets. The pilot project is designed to allow the city to observe the impact of the food trucks in preparation for the study session.

Champaign City Assistant Planning Director Rob Kowalski said that although he has approached the operators of the Mas Amigos trucks and a Hawaiian Ice truck about participating in the program, the Crave Truck is the only mobile food truck to take part in the pilot project so far.

“The biggest thing we hope to accomplish is to see how many food truck vendors are interested in the program, operating on the streets, how well they’re received by visitors downtown, how well they’re received by existing businesses Downtown and Campustown,” Kowalski said. “See how well it works with pedestrian and traffic flow and all of that.”

As for the Crave Truck, Ware says he’s glad that he’ll be able to continue serving up coffee and waffles in Champaign, at least for now. “It’s definitely a little bit of a relief until they get the ordinance worked out,” Ware said. “I’m happy to be working with the city.”