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Champaign pulls rug from under food trucks

Zach Ware, owner of the Crave Truck, thought that he had all of his ducks in a row regarding compliance to the City of Champaign’s food peddler regulations (available online here, Chapter 25). When he was starting his business in August 2011, he worked closely with Champaign City Clerk Marilyn Banks to make sure he was licensed properly as a transient food peddler, filling out the necessary paperwork and paying a $225 annual fee.

Ware even went so far as to engage Mayor Don Gerard and CPD Sergeant Donald Shelton, who, Ware says, “both gave me the go-ahead to park at meters in Champaign.” In the months since he began operating his business, which sells street waffles and coffee, he’s never been cited or even approached by city officials or police officers letting him know that his business was doing anything outside of city code.

So, when Ware visited the City offices to renew his license, it came as quite a surprise to learn that he was not allowed to park in metered spaces (or anywhere in the City right-of-way), and that his $225 annual fee was now $1,350 ($225 each for every employee who handles money, of which Crave Truck has six).

Banks notes that this is not a reinterpretation of the law. “There has not been a re-interpretation, and the City Clerk’s office has not been asked to re-interpret regulations regarding peddlers — food vendors in the City of Champaign,” Banks said in an email. “Please review Chapter 25, Article III and IV, of the City of Champaign Municipal Code which has not been modified since 1995. The provisions which address sales from parking meters and lots is located in Chapter 33 (33-59) of the municipal code, and it has not been modified since 1975.”

The City also posted the following on their Facebook page yesterday:

In response to the interest regarding the regulations for locating mobile food trucks on City right-of-way, there has been no change in the current ordinance or its interpretation. However, Staff has begun a thorough review of the existing requirements with the goal of proposing amendments that would clarify where mobile food trucks are allowed and for how long. The City realizes that the existing regulations need to be updated to adequately address the growing interest in mobile food truck vending. An analysis of how mobile food trucks are accommodated in other communities will also be performed.

The Champaign City Council will hold a Study Session on the topic at the Tuesday, June 26, 2012 meeting. Prior to this meeting the City of Champaign will also work closely with the Champaign Center Partnership to solicit input from interested mobile food truck vendors as well existing Downtown and Campustown businesses. This input will be presented at the City Council Study Session. Questions on this process can be directed to Assistant Planning Director, Rob Kowalski at or 217-403-8800.

Upon my reading, there’s no mention of the licensing fee structure in the city code, nor does it note that a separate licensing fee is required for each person handling money at a business.

TJ Blakeman, Executive Director of the Champaign Center Partnership, related in an email on Wednesday, “The Champaign Center Partnership has not taken a stance on food trucks. I will be speaking to some of our merchants in the coming weeks as well as at our monthly merchants meeting [today] to see what their thoughts are. We will let the City Council give further direction.” The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for comment.

Here’s the relevant passage regarding parking from the city code:

Sec. 33-59. – Peddling merchandise from parked vehicle

(a) No person shall park any vehicle from which merchandise is peddled upon any business street.

(b) As used in this section “business street” shall mean any street in a district zoned for business as provided by the zoning ordinance.

So, that’s fairly clear, but why the misunderstanding when Ware asked the mayor and a police sergeant that very question?

Mayor Gerard, for his part when contacted Wednesday, said in an email:

[Tuesday] night after the meeting on Twitter was the first I heard of [the Crave Truck’s regulatory issues]. I sent a note to City officials relaying my concern over this development and the need to address the issue as soon as possible. I submitted and received approval for a study session to discuss this very issue last Summer and I understand we have had a number of issues come up which were of a higher priority. However, I am disappointed if it is the case a city department has taken it upon themselves to reinterpret existing ordinances as to disrupt a local business.

And contrast this situation to that of Urbana, which is often considered to be less business-friendly than Champaign. According to Urbana Finance Department Office Manager Elizabeth Beaty, who wrote in an email, “Urbana’s cost for a mobile food vendor license is $55.00… If a mobile food vendor plans on operating their business from place to place throughout the City, then the business owner needs to apply for a solicitors/peddlers license with Urbana. The cost of this license is $50.00 per year and $10.00 for each additional sponsor per year.” That would add up to $155 per year for a business with five additional sponsors, compared to $1,350 in Champaign.

Beaty continues, “If a licensed mobile food vendor wants to operate their business at a fixed ‘public’ location (e.g. on a metered street), then they would need to reserve a meter(s) for that period of time and renew accordingly. The cost to reserve a meter is $15.00/day/meter.” That’s more than it would cost to feed the meters in downtown Champaign over the course of the business day, but at least mobile food vendors are allowed to operate in metered spaces.

Where does all of this leave the Crave Truck? Ware isn’t so sure. With a sextupled licensing burden and his opportunities in Champaign limited to possible rental spaces in private parking lots for the time being, he’s unsure of how to proceed in the time between now and the study session on June 26.

“I have five employees who depend on me to pay their rent, and my head waffle chef just had a child,” Ware said. In the meantime, since a recent visit to the National Restaurant Association conference in Chicago yielded several franchising inquiries, he’s weighing his options, and setting up at the Urbana Farmer’s Market on Saturdays.

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