Fort Smith Fosters Growing Food Truck Culture

By John Lovett
Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As the “Food Truck Movement” grows, so too do the regulations that exist for mobile food vendors. While this article focuses quite a bit on the particulars of Fort Smith City, I think it may be an interesting read for anyone who has concerns about food truck vending licenses rules and regulations.

Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark.

Food trucks comes in many shapes, sizes and colors, and so do the evolving Fort Smith city regulations.

Fort Smith is experiencing some growing pains as it seeks to integrate mobile food vendors into its dining scene. But as more public property locations open up and regulations adapt to the needs of business owners and diners, more mobile food vendors are likely to take part in the growing Fort Smith food truck culture.

A public “food truck alley” is taking shape downtown, and regulations have shifted in response to resistance from vendors who objected to the initial guidelines. Six spaces were designated last month. Two vendors have applied so far.

A new River Valley Artisan Market is also being formed at Creekmore Park next month that may attract mobile food vendors.

There are currently 29 licensed mobile food vendors in Fort Smith, including a few food carts like Shorty’s Tamales and snow-cone stands like Rainbow Shaved Ice.

And there are several other vendors that operate under a catering license, like Carlos Bonilla with his Los Bardales food truck that can often be found parked in the Zero Mountain Cold Storage parking lot serving burritos. Bonilla’s restaurant is at 323 N. 10th St.

As Bill Striplin at the Fort Smith Planning Department explains it, the catering license is for those who already have a restaurant or a health-inspected place to prepare foods.

Mobile food vendor licenses can be bought for both private property or public property. Both are $150 and last one year. The public property license is for downtown locations in “qualifying parallel parking spaces” during the hours of 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

And then there is a license for the six spaces adjacent to Cisterna Park at 10th and Garrison Avenue. This license costs an additional $100 and allows operation from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Although the city has come a long way since food trucks were not even allowed downtown due to a state highway regulation, there are still some concerns with vendors on being over regulated.

A 1993 push also failed following resistance from brick-and-mortar restaurants. The city board picked up the issue again in 2014. Mobile food vendor licenses were finally extended in May 2015 from 120 days with a $250 fee to one year with a $150 fee. That was during a revamp of the entire Fort Smith food truck code last year. After a month, there were still no takers for public space licenses, and just a few in private spaces.

Despite there being over 30 licensed mobile food vendors in the city, only two have applied to have one of the six spots designated for food trucks downtown. Signs were placed in late June. Not long afterward, the two-days-in-a-row rule was dropped and “food trailers” were written into the mix.

Casey Millspaugh, chairman of the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Commission and an entrepreneur who recently started a mobile popcorn trailer, questioned the city’s need for a lottery for licenses an extra fee at the space adjacent to Cisterna Park, noting that little interest shown and no amenities like water or electricity hookups are available.

Tasha Taylor with Truckin’ Delicious expressed the same concerns.

Wally Bailey, director of Fort Smith’s Development Services, said the lottery was integrated into the plan when only two spaces were expected to be designated. The $100 fee aids administrative costs, he added. Food trucks and trailers must be “self-contained” to operate at the space adjacent to Cisterna Park.

Since there are still four spots available at Cisterna, vendors can apply for permits at any time, Bailey said. Input from a variety of city commissions increased the number of lots from two to six. Vendors are asked to pay an extra $100 fee every two months, in addition to the $150 mobile vendor fee. The trade off is that they can operate downtown 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. The regular public property permit allows operation downtown from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The Cisterna lots are about 30 feet long.

“What we’d really like to see is a private entity step up and offer a place to make a food court,” Bailey said. “We don’t really want to be in the business of running businesses.”

At an angle to Garrison Avenue to make the triangle at Cistern Park, a strip of Towson is rarely used, and there has been a push from a leadership class at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith to make it a food truck alley.

However, the street is not actually part of the park, but is a public right-of-way.

The city owns only half of that right-of-way, and the business next door, Riverfront Inn, owns the other. Bailey said to create a food truck alley there, as proposed by the Parks and Recreation Commission, the hotel’s owners would be required to give the land over to the city.

Bailey also invited vendors to make their concerns public saying the city wants to work with business owners to ease regulations.

Taylor, who was camped out at a Mercy parking lot on Dallas Street Friday, said she would also like to see a private mobile food court established some day. Taylor said the city has been “very accommodating.” Loosening the rules at Cisterna was a deciding factor in her application for a license there, Taylor said.

Multiple location license
Truckin’ Delicious will start serving lunch at Cisterna Park on Tuesdays in their city circuit that includes Mercy Fort Smith, Sodies Wine and Spirits and a space behind Central Mall.

Saloon Style BBQ is the other Cisterna Park area vendor. After a week or two off to fix their food truck, the Joneses expected set back up at Cisterna on Saturday evening.

They pay $50 extra to the city for the “multiple location” license.

Striplin writes: “Once a truck is licensed for a spot, if they choose to relocate to another spot, they can either pay $40 to have their license address changed, or they can choose to upgrade their license to a multiple location license for $50.” With that, the business can operate from as many approved locations as they wish. The vendor just needs permission from the property owner for every location.

If two or more food trucks or trailers are set up in the same spot, rules require customers to have access to a bathroom. That access can be an established business, but permission is required for both of them.

Truckin’ Delicious ran into a problem with once when set up at Quarry Shopping Center across from Central Mall near a snow cone stand. One business had approved bathroom access, but the other one didn’t. Taylor said the real problem though was a concern from the shopping center manager of so much traffic around the Truckin’ Delicious truck.

It is unclear how mobile food vendor rules in Fort Smith will change when a business seeks a license to sell alcohol.

“To make a food court real successful, I think there has to be some beer involved,” Taylor said.

Millspaugh said he has been investigating the issue with the Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

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