Even as the number of food trucks in Wichita increases, their visibility in some ways is decreasing.
That’s because the food trucks have found out that city ordinance does not allow them to park on public streets downtown. And some bricks-and-mortar restaurants that pay rent to be in a particular area have complained about the trucks posing potential competition.
It’s a situation that Wichita officials suspect will result in a public discussion about where city residents want to find the trucks in the future.
“I think at some point we’re going to need some analysis here,” said Tom Stolz, director of the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department. “As the (food-truck) industry seems to be proliferating, I think there’s going to be a natural controversy between people who want to grow the industry and (bricks-and-mortar) restaurants,” especially in restaurant-heavy areas such as Delano and Old Town.
“I think the ordinances were written a long time ago, and, I don’t feel, with what we do in mind,” said Jeff Schauf, who helped pioneer the food-truck scene in Wichita by opening the Flying Stove in 2011. Fans used to find the truck on First Street alongside the Farm and Art Market, until Schauf found out it was against city ordinance.
“We have just been learning as we go,” Schauf said.
There are 67 mobile food units in Wichita, ranging from hot dog carts and catering trucks to full-menu food trucks, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
The department requires food trucks to pass a food inspection, and the city of Wichita requires one or two licenses depending on where a truck plans to park. If it will be on private property, a transient merchant license is required, and the truck must have the permission of the property owner, and the property must be zoned for the commercial enterprise.
Food-truck parking is not allowed on public streets within the Central Business District, from the Arkansas River on the west to Washington Avenue on the east, and from Lewis Street on the south to Elm Street on the north, as well as along Douglas west to Seneca, including Delano.
If a truck will be vending on a public street outside the business district, a street vendor license is required. Only one truck is allowed per block, which poses a challenge when the trucks want to put together an event where they’re all parked together, Schauf said.
Awareness of the food trucks has increased dramatically over the past two years, along with entrepreneurs who want to get their feet wet with a truck before investing in a full-scale bakery or restaurant, said Laura Quick, supervisor of the city’s food, tobacco and grease program.
It works the other way, too. Owners of restaurants are adding food trucks, because “you have to go with the flow, and now it’s the hottest thing in the country,” said Melad Stephan, owner of such Old Town restaurants as Sabor and Luca Italian Kitchen. He opened the Hopping Pita food truck two months ago.
Stephan said he at first had parked on the street in Old Town and, by a law firm’s request, in its parking lot near Bradley Fair, until restaurants in both areas complained, and the truck had to move, he said. As an owner of restaurants, Stephan sees both sides. He thinks the trucks bring people to an area where they will also notice the restaurants. “It’s not a direct competition, but I understand it gives people another choice,” and they may go to a food truck instead of a restaurant in any given area, Stephan said.
The food trucks maintain Facebook pages where people can monitor their locations. The Hopping Pita includes Jacob Liquor Exchange at 21st and Maize Road and Cargill at First and Water among its regular haunts.
Since he can’t park on the street in Old Town, Stephan has been parking the Hopping Pita at least once a week on private property there, off Rock Island between First and Second streets, behind his Revolution Rock Bar. He said he’s had just as much traffic as he’d had on First Street. And he said he has had the most success parking his truck in a lot attached to a business where the employees come to the truck for lunch.
But food truck owners still would like to be more visible, and Schauf wants to be in Old Town. “It’s nice when we can park somewhere where people can sit down and be part of the city. I feel we drive positive traffic to areas where we don’t have that kind of traffic,” Schauf said.
Schauf said that the food truck owners have been working together as a coalition “to figure out the best way to effect some kind of positive change” in the ordinances.
“I hope the city of Wichita views us as something that’s positive. When we get together we like to do some good for the community,” he said, including helping charitable causes. “Anytime you can get a crowd together in Wichita it’s a good thing, because it can be a hard thing” to do.
But city officials say that the ordinances are in place for a reason: to keep Wichita’s core from becoming congested, including when people run into crowds around food trucks while they’re trying to make their way down a sidewalk.
“What do we want our downtown to look like?” asked Scott Knebel, the city’s downtown revitalization manager. “Do you want a truck on every block? That’s a discussion the public and the stakeholders in a particular area need to have. I think we might be moving toward that, especially if there’s a hue and cry to diminish regulations on the food trucks.”
Schauf said the food trucks are just starting to see the issues that need to be worked through, including ways to have food truck events.
“It was important to get started and let people see what we’re about. I think there’s probably some public support” for greater access for the trucks, Schauf said. “It’s already a tough job.”