by CHRIS ROGERS
After a proposal to repeal it was floated, Winona’s brick-and-mortar rule for food trucks still stands. Under the rule, any food truck operating on city streets or parks must be connected to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The council has granted one exception to the Winona Eats truck, which sold snow cones, hot dogs, and cotton candy in Lake Park despite not having a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but it declined to allow Joel Anacabe’s Philly cheesesteak truck to operate downtown without a separate restaurant in city limits.
A year ago, the Winona City Council slightly revised its food truck rules with the stated goal of relaxing the rules and encouraging more food trucks to operate in the city. However, at least in downtown, the revised rules did not encourage any additional food trucks to set up shop. So this spring, city staff brought the issue back to the City Council with various proposals for making it easier to operate a food truck in Winona. “We’re just hearing from people that there are not enough options, so that’s why we brought it back to the council,” city manager Steve Sarvi explained earlier this month.
The staff proposal included various options for rule changes. Currently, food trucks are only allowed to operate on downtown Third Street, in Lake Park, and on private property. Wherever they operate, they must be 150 feet away from a restaurant. City staff proposed expanding that list of locations to include Levee Park and the adjacent dead end of Main Street and Prairie Island’s Kiwanis Shelter. At council member Michelle Alexander’s request city staff also presented the council with an option to allow food trucks to operate anywhere downtown. City staff suggested expanding the hours food trucks may operate, and staff also recommended allowing food trucks to operate within 150 feet of restaurant with the restaurant’s permission. Finally, city staff floated the idea of repealing the brick-and-mortar rule.
In a letter, Emily Kurash, the coordinator of the chamber-of-commerce-run downtown business organization, the Winona Main Street Program, encouraged the council to ease restrictions on food trucks and repeal the brick-and-mortar rule. “One topic that continually rises to the top of conversation is the lack of variety in downtown restaurants,” Kurash wrote. “While it’s true that our restaurant owners in downtown work tirelessly to run excellent establishments, it is apparent that there could be more offerings at varied times of day to satiate the palates of people venturing downtown on a regular basis.”
When the proposal came up for a vote, Alexander championed repealing the brick-and-mortar rule. “I think competition breeds better everything,” she said. “I think for the benefit of the community, not the individual business, you allow more options,” she added. Nodding to comments other council members received from downtown restauranteurs, Alexander said, “I think a lot of the concerns our downtown businesses are expressing aren’t going to come to fruition.”
Council member Pam Eyden agreed. “There is a lot more activity downtown. This is just part of the mix. This is an amenity people are coming to expect in a city that has a dynamic arts and culture ambience.” However, Eyden supported limiting the location where food trucks could operate.
“The city runs on its tax dollars and its brick-and-mortar [restaurants] are the ones that pay tax dollars,” council member Gerry Krage responded. If the city opens the door, food trucks will come from distant cities to sling food in Winona. “We can’t just think it’s all going to be homegrown. Out-of-town people will come in and where does that money go?” Krage added.
Thurley agreed with Krage. For a community of Winona’s size, opening the food truck floodgates might really threaten brick-and-mortar restaurants that have put down roots, he said.
Krage added that opening the door to more food trucks might create problems with litter and with food truck customers using the bathrooms of brick-and-mortar businesses without buying anything.
“I’m torn both ways on this,” council member Paul Schollmeier said. “I am kind of surprised that we have a letter here from Main Street and I’m hearing from restaurants that don’t support it … I wonder if they’re communicating with each other.” He supported expanding the locations, but not repealing the brick-and-mortar rule.
Council member George Borzyskowski said he heard from citizens on both sides of the argument. He suggested increasing the distance that food trucks must stay away from restaurant to 300 feet and relaxing the other rules. “I think the 300 feet can pretty much be a pretty good protection for all of the businesses that are there. You have to be a block away,” he stated.
Peterson voted against repealing the brick-and-mortar rule and allowing food trucks to operate anywhere downtown. “I’m all in favor of opening it up to food trucks, but I’m just not ready to open it up to the whole downtown,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people that have invested in these restaurants downtown that are probably doing OK, but I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize their businesses,” he added.
Borzyskowski and Alexander were the only ones to vote for a motion to allow food trucks to operate anywhere downtown, repeal the brick-and-mortar rule, and extend the distance-from-a-restaurant rule to 300 feet. A vote to expand the locations to Levee Park and the Kiwanis Shelter — but not all of downtown — and expand operating hours for food trucks passed 4-3, with Peterson, Schollmeier, Thurley, and Eyden supporting it. Krage joined Alexander and Borzyskowski in opposing that motion. No one tried to make a second motion to repeal the brick-and-mortar rule.