Survey on mobile food trucks presents positive view, but cautioned urged
The road to realizing food trucks and a permanent patio culture in the downtown is paved with popular support, according to a recent city survey, but it could come at some cost, the city’s mayor warns.
John Dooley cautioned that expanding the food truck market and patios on Baker Street might come at the expense of the more established restaurants in the city.
His comments came in light of a review of the mobile vending policy — called for by council eight months ago. As part of the review a public survey on mobile vending, food trucks and sidewalk patios was launched in late September for three weeks with a total of 1,130 responses received.
Overall, the majority of respondents were supportive of the number of patios downtown this year, city planner Alex Thumm explained in his report, or wanted even more.
“As for food trucks and mobile vending, the majority thought there should be at least a few food trucks in Nelson,” he said. “Interestingly, 35 per cent were unsure about how many, if any, should be allowed.”
But Mayor Dooley felt a move to expand the mobile market might be create an uncomfortable climate in COVID-19 times.
“In this particular time we are in, I have to say that what I am hearing right now is … there is a certain amount of concern from the folks that are actually here everyday, that we are going to add one more thing that will cut into their business model at this particular point in time,” he said.
“I get what we are doing that we need to look at this, but I’m just wondering if we are creating one more bit of anxiety among people who are really working hard to make ends meet right now. It will take them at least a couple of years to dig out of this right now.
“It wasn’t a big deal in the past because there weren’t many of them, but you know what, it’s a big deal right now and it’s worrying, and it’s concerning, and it’s creating stress among restaurateurs in our community that I don’t think they deserve at this point in time.”
Coun. Jesse Woodward felt the climate was right for an increase in food trucks.
“I think we have to overcome that fear, there is a fear in the business community of that … it was a fear of money being taken away from that brick and mortar (businesses),” he said.
One of the majority views from the survey was mobile vendors needed not be further than half a block from businesses with similar products, Thumm explained, while places like Railtown and Lakeside Park were especially appropriate for food trucks, but the downtown could accommodate some food trucks as well.
He said less than 43 per cent of respondents were open to food trucks being right on Baker Street.
If some people feel they had a strong business plan and would like to compete, Coun. Keith Page felt the city needed to find a way to provide that.
“This is business innovation,” he said about the mobile food trucks. “There is an efficiency here that someone is able to discover to allow them to go where their market is going. Brick and mortar don’t have that.
“There is a certain set inertia around restaurants and that is preventing other people from trying to be in the market and be business models.”
He said council should not be overly aggressive in telling people what businesses are okay and what are not when it comes to something as benign as food trucks.
Coun. Brittny Anderson thought council should think outside the box on what mobile food stands could be.
“I would just like to see, when we are considering how to move forward with this, that we are considering things that are on the fringes that might be good business models that might be fulfilling a void but might not be a typical food truck,” she said.
Patios were well patronized by Nelsonites this past summer.
The survey found that, of those who indicated that they live in Nelson, only 20 per cent did not visit a downtown patio this past summer.
In addition, of the 80 per cent of respondents who did visit a patio, the average person visited a patio 10 times.
On the other side of the coin, those who indicated that they own a business downtown, 43 per cent indicated that this year’s patio offering was the right amount, while one third would support more patio space downtown.
Only 18 per cent thought that there were too many parking spaces taken up by patios, while only 20 per cent were in favour of imposing a cap on the number of patios.
“Several comments were received from downtown business owners in support of more pedestrian-only space and, specifically, more patio space,” Thumm said in his report.
The general public provided a wide range of opinions on patios, noted Thumm in his report.
“Parking was a common theme on both sides of the argument. Many comments that were in favour of patios nonetheless stated that any parking spaces that are removed by a patio should be replaced somewhere else,” he said in his report to council.
A number of complaints were directed at specific restaurants’ patios, due to their design, configuration, size or lack of physical distancing, Thumm added.
Staff intend on following up the survey and presentation with a policy proposal to council at a later date.
Food trucks and mobile vending
Most people did not indicate a preference between clustering or roaming food trucks but there was a slight preference indicated for fixed locations.
Thumm said the most popular locations were the downtown’s north-south streets, lower Hall Street and Lakeside Park. Nelson Avenue garnered the least interest, he explained.
Of those who work downtown there was only one per cent that were against any food trucks in the city, while the average response to how many should be allowed was five.
Only 45 per cent thought that Baker Street was an appropriate location, while 67 per cent thought that a mobile vendor should have a dedicated spot all season long.
The survey results showed the majority of respondents were open to, or in favour of, allowing food trucks, Thumm said of the 1,130 respondents.
“Many respondents who were against food trucks on the street in the downtown suggested that Nelson create a food truck area in Railtown or by Lakeside Park with amenities like shared seating and washrooms,” he said in the report.
Thumm said a number of comments were submitted against food trucks, in particular from residents concerned about the “viability of Nelson’s restaurants and from business owners.”
Some people were concerned about exhaust, noise and a lack of washroom access and potential seating areas for the customers of food trucks.
— Source: City of Nelson
Nelson & District Chamber of Commerce
The chamber of commerce was supportive of allowing mobile food vending beginning next year if monthly fees were not too low and a minimum separation was required from similar brick-and-mortar buildings.
As for location, they were supportive of clustering food trucks together and locating these clusters in areas underserved by restaurants.
Location, location, location
With respect to location, staff were considering the following:
- Cottonwood Falls market location when the market is closed;
- Victoria Street (Falls to Hall) and Lake Street;
- Stanley, Ward, Josephine and Hall Streets (adjacent to non-residentially zoned property only);
- 500 block of Falls Street;
- 100 and 700 blocks of Baker Street;
- Lakeside Drive, including the parking lot portion adjacent to the soccer fields at Lakeside Park; and
- Lower Hall Street parking lot.
No changes to zoning are being reviewed. Mobile vending would remain permitted as-of-right on most private property zoned commercial or mixed-use.
Nelson Fire & Rescue Services requires that food trucks be at least three metres from any building. If a mobile vendor were not satisfied with the city’s conditions and fees, they could negotiate for space with private property owners.
Background policy research
With respect to the issues raised against food trucks:
- A 2015 survey by Vancity Credit Union of Metro Vancouver and Victoria residents found that the majority of people who ate at food trucks stated that they would have otherwise eaten from home, eaten fast food, or skipped the meal altogether. Only 15 per cent of respondents said they would have eaten a sit-down meal at a restaurant instead.
- In 2015, the City of Vancouver estimated that roughly 10 of its 100-plus street food vendors at that time have gone on to open brick-and-mortar locations.
- According to Industry Canada data from 2013, more food trucks were achieving profitability (71 per cent) than brick-and-mortar restaurants (59 per cent).
A 2011 master’s thesis by Lindsay Moriarty on food trucks found positive impacts of mobile vendors on street life and activation, citing research that they can make streets and parks feel noticeably safer by the public.
As there are indeed lower barriers to entry than into the restaurant industry, food trucks can serve as incubators of new concepts, entrepreneurs and business models, who then, if successful, move into a permanent location.
— Source: City of Nelson, Alex Thumm