Politics & Government

Wichita may let food trucks on downtown streets

Food Trucks at the Fountain
Food Trucks at the Fountain

Faced with an plethora of food trucks, Wichita is considering opening downtown to street-side food-truck operations and passing regulations in an effort to ensure they run in a safe and orderly fashion.

A proposed ordinance discussed by the City Council at a workshop Tuesday would get rid of a current ban on food truck operations on downtown city streets and regulate such matters as fire suppression systems and how close food trucks can operate to buildings, fixed restaurants and each other.

“The popularity of food trucks has exploded,” in the past couple of years, said planner Scott Knebel. “In 2012, we invited the people who were licensed as food truck operators to a meeting and one of them showed up. This year, we ... had two meetings with operators and the room was packed beyond capacity. There were 20-plus food truck operations.”

An estimated 40 to 50 food trucks work Wichita’s streets at any given time, but it’s difficult to know for sure because they operate on the same temporary sales permits as any street or sidewalk vendor, officials said.

Truck operators at Tuesday’s meeting were generally supportive of the proposed ordinance. They said it would open up downtown areas that are now off limits and that, for the most part, the restrictions appear to be reasonable.

Natalie Burris, operator of the Noble House Hawaiian food truck, and Kate Clause with the Sunflower Espresso truck said they’re especially excited that more of downtown would be open to food trucks.

Another big change: Instead of having to get a permit for each location, truck operators could get one permit that allowed them to operate anywhere where food trucks are allowed.

The operators said the current location-by-location permitting is cumbersome and expensive and it would be easier to operate if the city allowed more roaming under a single permit.

At present, the trucks are pretty much restricted to a private “pocket park” on Douglas between Market and Main. Although that’s not a bad location, the ability to make short stops on city streets would open new territories near businesses that don’t have many lunch or coffee options nearby, the operators said.

Clause said another place she’d like to be able to serve is around the downtown library.

Automatic control

Probably the most controversial aspect of the regulations would be a requirement that food trucks have an automatic fire-control system if they cook food that generates grease-laden vapors.

Some food truck operators have objected to the cost – about $4,000 a truck, said Scott Knebel, a planner who has been working on the ordinance.

Council member James Clendenin, whose father had been in the food business, questioned whether the same level of safety could be achieved with ordinary fire extinguishers.

Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said a grease fire in a small space “probably isn’t going to be controllable by a 10-pound fire extinguisher.” Fires are especially dangerous in the context of food trucks, almost all of which carry an on-board propane supply for grilling and other appliances.

Crisp said there have been three food-truck fires in Wichita in the past few years, though none recently. He said he could point to examples nationally of catastrophic fires where “people were severely injured and even died.”

Burris and Clause said they’re not really troubled by the fire regulations. The Noble House truck already has a fire suppression system and Sunflower Espresso’s coffee machines don’t generate greasy vapor, so it won’t be required to have a system.

However, “I know some of the other trucks are going to struggle to update what they have,” Burris said.

The permit price would be $50 for 30 days, $250 for six months or $400 for a year.

Beer fans and food trucks crowded into Johnson's Garden Center on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, for the fourth annual event. Video by Denise Neil

The new community park opened Saturday, April 9, 2016, with food trucks, arts and crafts vendors and live music. Video by Denise Neil

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas