By Robert Kalesse
Special to Delaware Business Times
For nearly a decade, the food truck phenomenon has helped reshape the culinary landscape of cities from as nearby as Philadelphia to as far away as Portland, Oregon. These mobile vendors, equipped with kitchens on wheels, creative monikers, and various genres of eats, offer the walking hungry an alternative to their everyday brick-and-mortar options.
Within the past few years Delaware has also gotten in on the action, thanks to mobile vendors like Kapow Truck, which serves authentic Thai cuisine; Java Puppy, specializing in everything caffeinated under the sun; and Passionista Fashion Truck, a fully functioning fashion boutique complete with its own dressing room.
As the number of Delaware-based food trucks grew to double digits, the owners of Kapow, Java Puppy, and Passionista decided to band together to communicate better with each other and to promote safe and clean practices. In 2014 the triumvirate started the state’s only mobile vending and food truck association, called the “Rolling Revolution.”
Wit Milburn, co-owner of Kapow Truck, along with wife Jody, said the main reason for unionizing was to help young entrepreneurs (themselves included) establish their brand. Their online site, www.rollingrev.com, serves as a hub for each mobile vendor — currently at 11 — to book gigs at local events, discuss city and state regulations for vendors, and for potential clients to read about where and when the trucks operate in the state of Delaware.
“I think most of us eventually want to become a brick-and-mortar restaurant or establishment,” Milburn said. “But in today’s environment, it’s really difficult to open and be successful unless you’re already established. Our hope is that by appearing at different events and on the city streets, customers will get to know who we are and that we offer some really great food, drinks, and merchandise.”
Emily Duran, owner of Passionista, has been trucking since 2013, selling primarily ladies clothing and locally made jewelry at private events, vineyards, festivals, and even corporate locations. Duran said she joined Rolling Revolution because of the challenges she faces deciphering the rules and regulations for where food trucks can set up shop.
“I have found it difficult to operate my business the way laws are currently set up, and I’m hoping that if we work hard, other trucks won’t have the same issues to face in the future,” Duran said, referring specifically to what she called “antiquated laws” regarding the operation of food trucks in the city of Wilmington.
Though written to discourage random street vendors from setting up shop on sidewalks next to brick-and-mortar businesses, Duran insists these “peddler’s laws” make it difficult for her to conduct business. The Delaware native also said she would never consider setting up shop near a competing jewelry or fashion store.
However, she finds it unfair that mobile vendors are totally restricted from operating in heavily trafficked areas like Market Street.
“The regulations really aren’t clear; all I know is you can’t park on the streets of Wilmington and sell your wares, so we are mostly restricted to working private events, where a private property owner can allow us to do our business,” Duran said.
Currently, the city of Wilmington requires a business license for all brick-and-mortar establishments, as well as for mobile vendors. However, Chapter 42, Article III, Section 241, of the Wilmington City Code is where things get tricky, with regard to zoning:
No person shall place, erect, build, construct or maintain, or cause or permit to be placed, erected, built, constructed or maintained, any booth, stand, stall, cabinet, tent or place for the purpose of displaying or selling any goods, wares or merchandise, or for any purpose whatsoever, which extends beyond the true building line of any street, highway, lane or alley of the city, or shall in any manner place, display or sell any goods, wares or merchandise upon any portion of any street, highway, lane or alley of the city between the true building lines thereof.
In layman’s terms, no one, be it a “peddler” or a mobile food vendor, is permitted to simply set up on a city sidewalk and begin selling products. The laws were put in place to protect the established brick-and-mortar businesses that, among other things, pay property taxes.
Because of these restrictions, mobile food vendors are allowed to conduct business only when given specific written permission by a private property owner like, for example, the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, which hosts a number of food trucks in their South Madison Street lot on Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
David Sophrin, policy director for the mayor’s office, said the city is working closely with city lawyers, local stakeholders, and Market Street businesses to determine the proper path for allowing mobile vendors on city streets sooner rather than later.
“Last summer, Downtown Visions hosted a weekly Downtown Farmers Market, where vendors, including the food trucks, set up, along with artists and musicians,” Sophrin said. “It was a great success, and if we can replicate or even expand on that, it would only benefit the city.”
Will Minster, director of business development for Downtown Visions, a local nonprofit whose mission is “to create, manage and promote a quality environment for people who live, work, and visit Downtown Wilmington,” said that finding a place for mobile vendors is a matter of plugging holes in the city’s merchant map.
“It depends where and when (food trucks would operate), so there is no negative impact on the existing restaurants and businesses downtown,” Minster said. “It has to be focused, because the last thing we want is for those brick-and-mortar places to be hurt as a result.”
Minster mentioned areas of King Street and the 600 block of Market Street as viable options, but only after discussing the idea with local politicians and business owners. He also said that, despite the popularity of mobile vendors at the weekly Downtown Wilmington Farmers Market, which will be open on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. beginning in May, some local businesses have felt threatened by the food trucks.
“We did get some negative feedback from local businesses closer to Rodney Square, and that’s something we have to take seriously,” Minster said. “We reached out to work on things with them, because our hope is that the presence of additional competition can only help the city as a whole.”
Joe Van Horn, operating partner at Chelsea Tavern on Market Street, is one local business owner who welcomes the addition of more vendors to the downtown area. The restaurateur said, however, that he didn’t know if he’d want a food truck parked right outside his building, and he said opinions on food trucks vary from business to business.
“I am a proponent of the idea that the more people we get out of the office buildings, the better,” Van Horn said. “I do remember seeing a petition going around to keep food trucks off of Market Street, but I’m all for anything that will solidify [the area] as a food destination.”
Matthew Gellar, CEO of SoCal Mobile Food Vendors Association in Los Angeles, Calif., has helped areas like Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia with their mobile- food-vendor issues. He said that competition should be the least of concerns for everyone involved, from brick-and-mortar restaurants to politicians.
“By restricting mobile vendors from operating, city officials are basically telling constituents when and how to spend their money, and that’s just insulting,” Gellar said. “The fear that food trucks will move in and shut down the brick-and-mortar businesses is shortsighted. Sure, some places have shut down where food trucks moved in, but that’s mostly because they were terrible restaurants that refused to offer their customers better options.”
Karla Fleshman, co-owner of Java Puppy (along with partner Mary Tipping), opened her mobile café at the Wilmington Flower Market in 2013 but has had trouble working within Wilmington’s city limits. She was shut out of the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in 2013 and, after submitting an eight-page proposal titled “Mobile Food & Vending Truck Freedom” to the city solicitor’s office, sits in a sort of merchant limbo.
“The principle of protectionism is in effect here, in that brick-and-mortar businesses are protected by these antiquated peddler’s laws,” Fleshman said. “But did anyone block Netflix so that Blockbuster could survive? Of course not. This is about free-market competition and each business’s responsibility to engage their customers.”
Fleshman said the tug-of-war with the city is ongoing but knows that mobile vendors can have only a positive impact. “People follow us on social media and make it a point to come out to where we are each day, so the brick-and-mortar places will benefit from those crowds, because the people will see what downtown has to offer and will shop and eat and come back. We’re not about competition; we’re about collaboration.”
“Their (Rolling Revolution’s) proposal was very detailed and offered solutions like reserved lots, parking spots, and so forth,” Sophrin said. “All of their suggestions are being taken into account as we discuss a place for mobile vendors with the city law department and others. Our hope is that we can find the right combination of ideas to find mobile vendors their place in Wilmington in the very near future.”
In the meantime, several of the Rolling Revolution trucks can be found each week this spring and summer, most notably at the Downtown Wilmington Farmers Market in Rodney Square on Wednesdays, the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts on Thursdays, and often at the Cool Springs Farmers Market in June and the Newark Natural Foods Farmers Markets on Sundays.
“Nine members of the Rolling Revolution will also be gathering at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts on Friday, May 1, from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. For more information on the organization, the operating schedule for each truck, or to book any of them for a private event, check out www.rollingrevolution.com.” ♦