Food from trucks and carts is a foodie movement taking off across the country. Except in Des Moines, that is.
The mobile food trend continues to take off across the country. The second season of the Food Network's "The Great Food Truck Race," a reality competition between gourmet food trucks, starts next month. Cities like Portland, Chicago and more recently, Minneapolis and Kansas City, all feature booming food cart and truck scenes selling gourmet, international and artisan fare to lunchtime and/or late-night diners in busy urban spots.
But in Des Moines, a city that takes pride in its dining scene, food carts and trucks are rare, limited to a handful of taco trucks and lonely carts. Those who view gourmet food on the fly as just one more way Des Moines can progress, say the city is not warm to the trend, putting into place rules and ordinances that severely limit their chance of success.
Pronto, a food cart owned by Marcus Walsh and Henry Alliger, started selling food at Nollen Plaza this summer. The duo serves ambitious fare like banh mi and sandwiches featuring locally sourced meat and vegetables. But as the lone food cart in a space once loaded with options, Alliger and Walsh have been forced to add items like hot dogs to appeal to more general diners.
Alliger, 28, works the cart from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday. He wanted to set up in Western Gateway Park, surrounded by thousands of office workers, but discovered the City of Des Moines did not allow food vendors there. New regulations that went into effect in January shot down any possibility of a late-night spot in the Court District. The Civic Center of Greater Des Moines handles the licensing for Nollen Plaza and is exempt from the city's regulations, so that's where Pronto ended up.
"There's a lot of talk of people wanting this to be a 24-7 city," Alliger said. "Food carts are a part of that, but the policies in place make it hard for a scene to build. We're trying, but there are a lot of hurdles to jump through."
New rules limit vendor times
The Des Moines City Council in January put rules into effect that force mobile food vendors to own a license ($550 per year or $150 per month), and more importantly, to shut down between 1:30 and 5:30 a.m. - before the bars close and hungry people fill the sidewalks and streets.
"By cutting it off at 1:30 a.m., you're taking away the best hour and a half of business a food cart has," said Samuel Auen, who operates the Tacopocalyse stand during the Downtown Farmers Market and weekly at the Cumming Tap. Auen is in the process of purchasing a food cart, with plans to locate in the East Village for lunches and late nights.
Phil Delafield, the city's community development director, said changes were born from complaints and issues in several city neighborhoods, such as the University Avenue corridor and Southeast 14th Street, and were in response to the tendency of some food trucks to set up canopies and picnic tables. The result was a non-transient feel for what the city labels transient merchants.
Des Moines City Councilman Brian Meyer initiated the new regulations, in response to issues on the south side in which trucks - typically those serving cheap Mexican fare - never moved, and "flea markets" would set up without permits. "The thing that prompted this is that they were in one place all the time," Meyer said. (When addressing the city council, Des Moines police representatives also raised concerns about fights breaking in the crowds gathered around food carts, as well as overflow into the streets.)
But those rules also hurt the potential for downtown mobile food vendors to sprout up and succeed. Des Moines' rules for a transient merchant license require that a truck or cart locate in the same place every day, but also that they move off the space for at least six hours a day. A cart or truck must also sit on a paved surface and provide a restroom within 500 feet for employees and customers (pushcarts are excluded from this part).
For Auen, freedom is the biggest benefit food carts can offer. To open a restaurant, an entrepreneur is looking at a $100,000 investment, at least. A food cart is up and running for as little as $5,000. For younger, cash-strapped restaurateurs looking to break into the dining industry, a food cart is an inexpensive entrance.
"It gives people the opportunity to create without worrying about having to please other people, like investors," Auen said. "If you fall on your face, you can at least sell the cart and make your money back."
Other cities embrace the mobile food trend
Maggie Suits, 31, used to live in Portland, Ore., and grew accustomed to the mobile food vendor scene. The city contains multiple "pods," small areas filled with 10-20 different vendors. She could pick up gourmet and artisan food from carts concentrated in residential neighborhoods, too. When the bars close, the carts stay open for another hour, catering to the city's busy nightlife. More than 600 carts (and very few trucks) have been licensed by the city, according to foodcartsportland.com.
Suits, 31, returned to Des Moines in 2009 to a city with far fewer curbside options. "Honestly, a city is just not a city without them," Suits said.
Just a few years ago, Minneapolis featured but a few sidewalk vendors operating downtown. Today dozens of food trucks sprinkle the urban center. A popular destination for trucks is Second and Marquette avenues, where food trucks can park in bus lanes and serve to lunch crowds in nearby high rises.
Carrie Summer and Lisa Carlson own three Chef Shack trucks that operate in Minneapolis and St. Paul and have been serving the cities for five seasons. Their menu includes Indian-spiced doughnuts, tempura soft shell crab sandwiches and grass-fed bison burgers. Over the last few years, Minneapolis has made changes to its city code that have opened the market to food trucks.
"People were a bit shy about it at first. There was a stigma attached, like it might be carnival food or fried garbage," Summer said. "Now people are eager, willing and even a little daring. They want something quick and delicious without having to spend a lot."
While things have improved, Summer and Carlson are working with the city for further changes. Only one truck is allowed per block, but they have been hosting special days to get five to seven trucks parked together. Summer said grouping truckers together draws bigger crowds and helps create more of a scene.
Baby steps in Des Moines
A few local restaurants, like Rock Power Pizza, 4211 S.W. Ninth St., own food trucks, but so far only use them to cater big events. Gusto Pizza Co., 1905 Ingersoll Ave., sold slices of pizza and more at the 80/35 Music Festival, and co-owner Joe McConville said the trailer has been an effective way of raising awareness for the restaurant.
"We're looking at it as an extension of our store, and getting our name out there is a big part of it," McConville said. "Having it at 80/35 got us a lot of good feedback from people who had never heard of us, even though we're just five blocks away."
McConville said the Gusto owners have toyed with the idea of taking the trailer out to West Des Moines or Johnston on random nights and posting on Facebook and Twitter to alert fans. McConville hopes this practice will further raise awareness of Gusto around town.
Food vendors (carts, not trucks) will be getting an opportunity in Western Gateway Park, at least for a limited time. The Downtown Community Alliance, organizers of the Downtown Farmers Market, will launch the Wednesday Market from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Aug. 31-Oct. 5.
The weekly outdoor market will focus on farmers market staples like produce, but also allow several mobile food vendors to draw in a lunch crowd from Nationwide, Wellmark and other massive offices in the Western Gateway area. If the event goes well, the Downtown Community Alliance hopes to expand the Wednesday Market to 12 weeks next year.
Downtown Community Alliance CEO Glenn Lyons helped start the Stampede Park expansion in Calgary (Alberta, Canada), which has grown into an area for sidewalk cafes, retail shops and food vendors. Lyons sees a potential for food carts and street vendors on Walnut Street downtown if renovations occur there in 2013. He pointed to the space, between Big City Burgers and the Kirkwood Lounge at Fourth and Walnut to Panera on 10th Street, as an area where mobile food vendors could set up shop to feed downtown workers and bargoers.
"I'd love to see a creative, festive retail environment there with the potential for lots of action," Lyons said. "You have to be careful with vendors, to make sure they're not interfering with a restaurant or a store. But there could be a mix of sidewalk cafes alongside food and retail vendors.
"All cities have food vendors. There are always regulations and control issues, but generally they're a good thing."
How D.M. compares
Des Moines requirements (food trucks and carts):
- Vendors must be located on a paved surface.
- Vendors must provide three parking spaces (except downtown).
- Sales area must not exceed 1,000 square feet or be longer than 50 feet on any side.
- Sales area must be designated on a site plan and you must set up in the same location every day.
- Must provide a restroom within 500 feet for workers and customers (except pushcarts). Normally, this means getting permission from a nearby business to use their restrooms.
- Location must be in an area zoned for commercial or industrial use.
- Must vacate the property for six hours every day and remove everything from the property.
- Food and drinks are not allowed to be sold in the downtown area between 1:30 and 5:30 a.m.
- A three-day license costs $50, a 30-day license costs $150, annual license costs $550.
- A cash bond of $200 must be posted with the city clerk.
Iowa City requirements:
- Carts must be located within the boundaries of City Plaza or Iowa Avenue.
- Carts can serve food 24 hours a day.
- Carts must be stored off-site and removed at the end of each vending day.
- Only eight permits are available, and are granted based on seniority.
- An annual license costs $1,000.
- Only one truck allowed per city block. Trucks must stay 100 feet away from sidewalk cafes or restaurants.
- Trucks must operate at least five months out of the year.
- Trucks can locate anywhere downtown, but if in a metered spot, owners must feed the meters all day.
- All food preparation must be done in a commercial kitchen within the Minneapolis city limits.
- An annual license costs $806.