Berkshire Communities Driving Discussions Over Food Trucks

Dec 4, 2013

The How We Roll food truck has been operating in Pittsfield since the spring.
Credit How We Roll

Communities in western Massachusetts are trying to figure out how to balance the opportunities and challenges they see with the emergence of food trucks in the region.

Though the number of food trucks operating in the Berkshires remains low, Pittsfield and Great Barrington are addressing the topic. In the works since August, Pittsfield city planners have drafted an ordinance that would allow mobile food vendors to obtain a permit to operate in the public right-of-way. The ordinance would allow mobile food vendors to set up in any public parking lot by purchasing a parking permit. But on-street parking would be restricted to the tail ends of North and South Streets, which create the heart of the downtown district. One of the areas proposed for allowable parking is in front of St. Joseph Church. Mark Brennan is the church’s attorney.

“The interruption of church services that we have such as daily mass at 12:10, the possibility of interruption of funerals, weddings and other events that we have there,” Brennan explained. “It’s purely from the perspective of a holy place.”

The ordinance would require food truck vendors to pay a monthly fee of $35 a spot for on-street parking within three designated downtown areas. Pasquale Arace is co-owner of The Highland Restaurant on Fenn Street and was among about 10 business owners who voiced their concerns at a city council committee meeting.

“If a person is able to show up on good days, sell their product, and just leave at minimal fee that is an unfair playing field,” Arace said. “If you charge the same amount of taxes or rent that some restaurants pay to be in the downtown I can assure you that you wouldn’t see a food truck anywhere in the downtown.”

The ordinance would prohibit a vendor from operating within 50 feet of an existing restaurant downtown. Kathy Lloyd is the co-owner of the How We Roll food truck, which began operating this spring and is the only one currently running in Pittsfield. She says the setback is a protectionist measure giving advantages to brick and mortar businesses while prohibiting trucks from setting up in areas with high levels of foot traffic.

“If a business is going out of business because of our $250 on a really good day, an average of under $100 a day then they may need to revisit their business model, not mine,” said Lloyd.

Mark Martin owns five Subway restaurants in the city. He says if the ordinance is approved he will look to establish a food truck, being that he pays $3,600 a year in real estate taxes for his restaurants.

“If I have a food truck, that means I don’t need to have brick and mortar businesses,” Martin said. “I can just lay off those people, put two people in a food truck and have a prime spot on one of the busiest streets in the city for $35 a month. It’s a great deal.”

The city’s subcommittee on ordinances and rules has tabled the item until its next meeting, which is yet to be scheduled. However, members of the subcommittee suggest reworking the ordinance and waiting until the city completes a parking study in spring 2014 before moving forward with it. Lloyd says her truck, which operates under a special permit, will shut down for January and February.

“The reality is that with this ordinance tabled we can park on North St. and just pay the going rate for staying in a spot too long which is $10 for a parking ticket,” Lloyd said. “I’m okay with that. It’s downright cheap for downtown Pittsfield.”

Meanwhile, the town of Great Barrington is revisiting the topic after taking initial steps in the spring to draft a bylaw allowing food trucks in its downtown. Town Health Agent Mark Pruhenski says town lawmakers didn’t feel comfortable putting the bylaw up for voter approval at its annual town meeting in May. Jan Seward is the co-owner of Amanda’s Kitchen, a food truck she hoped to run in South County but also operated in Pittsfield this summer. Seward spoke with WAMC News in August in the midst of a dispute about whether her truck was disrupting parking and business along North Street in Pittsfield.

“You have to take parking spaces available and you have to try to be where there are going to be people,” Seward said. “At the same time we respected the ordinances that are on the books in terms of how many feet away from something you need to be, you can’t block access, etc. And we were well within all of those guidelines.”

The bylaw in Great Barrington would allow two vendors in each of the two proposed downtown areas set back 50 feet from a restaurant. Pruhenski will present the proposal to the Board of Selectmen December 9th. If approved, it will face voters at the annual town meeting in May. Pruhenski says the bylaw is reflective of a main street construction project planned for the summer that will decrease the amount of parking spaces. Meanwhile, in North Adams the city has four licensed mobile food vendors that operate out of public parking lots at an annual fee of $100.