Springfield’s food trucks are learning to navigate city regulations
BY SCOTT FAINGOLD
“Last summer, the Illinois Future Farmers of America asked us and AZTCA to come set our food trucks up on the south side of the convention center for an event there,” said Randy Twyford, owner and operator of the Twyford BBQ food truck. “There were spots already pre-approved by the city on the south side of the convention center and we were set up there but then the mayor sent his people over. A nearby restaurant said we were affecting their business and we had to move to the other side of the convention center.”
Twyford’s experience seems typical of the challenges being faced by food truck operators in Springfield. While the popularity of the trucks can be observed in the well-attended local “food truck meet-ups” such as the MacArthur Boulevard Association’s Bites on the Boulevard and Downtown Springfield’s Street Food Festival, a perception among the food truck community of hostility toward the trucks from brick-and-mortar restaurants, along with unreasonable paperwork demands from the city, are keeping a potential economic engine from reaching full steam.
“On the food truck, we try to make ourselves friendly and hospitable. We truly do appreciate the business because if it weren’t for our customers we wouldn’t be in existence. Springfield is so supportive of us,” said Twyford, whose truck was voted “Best Barbecue” by readers of the Illinois Times in 2017. “It just amazes me every day. We get a lot of repeat customers and a lot of new customers.”
“We like to team up with local farmers based on the availability of produce,” said Kendra Cooper of Cooper’s StrEATside. “Our menu changes weekly, monthly, seasonally, based on what the farmers have. We like to use fresh products, our French fries are hand-cut daily, we use fresh meats as well. Everything is homemade.” Cooper’s husband, Justin, is the chef, and she says he likes to take ownership and pride in the food he serves and keeps up with the latest food trends. In addition to setting up regularly at the Old Capitol Farmers Market, the StrEATside truck keeps busy providing lunch service for large office buildings and other private businesses.
Cooper says she hasn’t run into any hassles with the city but does find some of the paperwork required to set up a food truck to be excessive. “I understand having policies for setting up on the street. However, when we are in private parking lots, I don’t think the paperwork should be as redundant as it is.” As an example, she said that in order to participate in ‘Food Truck Fridays’ at St. John’s Hospital for a second year, all paperwork had to be redone. “I don’t understand why we have to go through the full process of getting the property management’s consent and everything else again. They don’t have time to take out of their schedule to sit down and fill out paperwork and neither do we.”
Cooper, whose truck’s motto is “Fresh Cuisine You Can’t Pass Up,” says she finds the public image of food trucks to be improving. “I know there used to be a perception that food trucks are nasty, they’re dirty, but I think we’ve overcome that stereotype. I think people are supporting food trucks now in the Springfield area.” As for competition from other food trucks, her attitude can be summed up as the more the merrier. “I think it would be nice to have one location in Springfield where all the trucks could go, like a food truck park. St. Louis does it, a lot of larger cities do that – they could even have it out at the fairgrounds, like a weekly or monthly thing.”
Hector Lopez of Los Rancheros has had his truck operational for a year. Specializing in tacos and burritos, the truck is a mobile addition to his stand on South Grand Avenue. “Our habanero burrito is very popular on South Grand and we tend to carry that to the stops or events that we go to.” As far as the permitting, Lopez has so far been able to avoid complications. “We found a couple of businesses that want us to be next door to them, like Hair of the Dog Bar/ber shop, so we kind of partner up with them,” he said.
The newest truck on the block in Springfield is Robert’s Seafood. “We launched the truck about three weeks ago,” said Brian Aiello. “Everything we do is fresh made – we want to replicate what we do in the store, with the same quality of food.” He says that so far, customers seem to love their seafood and shrimp tacos. The fish used in their tacos depends on the season. “We’ve got wild cod or wild mahi throughout the season and we have other seasonal sauces or toppings, like pico de gallo or mango fruit salsa, and we change those up as well.” Outside of seafood, Aiello enthusiastically touts his truck’s bison burger. “It’s a little bit leaner but it’s a very flavorful burger that we do on the grill. It comes with a pretzel bun and aioli sauce. People who haven’t had bison are very skeptical but they are very pleasantly surprised.”
As for dealing with the city, Aiello says the only learning curve on their part so far involves the timing of some of the processes. “If someone comes along and says they want us to do something this Saturday, we don’t have time to submit paperwork to the city, because that takes up to two weeks,” he said. “I’d love to help those guys get a better process.”
Jason Richardson of Skippers Island Oasis doesn’t set up for lunches, primarily choosing to focus on special events. “My food is higher-end, so to do lunches I’d have to change the menu. It’s also not really worth the additional permits just to be able to park at a certain spot.” He mentioned an experience he had where the fact that a McDonald’s was within 300 feet kept him from setting up. “I don’t think I’m going to hurt McDonald’s business,” he said. “Honestly, I would have liked to do lunches but it’s just too much hassle.”
Gilly’s BBQ is a trailer, rather than a truck. “I don’t drive,” said owner-operator Gil Taft, whose mobile kitchen – which specializes in ribs, rib tips, pork, brisket, chicken and other barbecue-style favorites – stays put in the parking lot between JoAnn Fabrics and GFS on Wabash Ave. “I pay rent there so I stay there. I do one event a year, for the sheet metal workers on Labor Day and that’s about it. I meet all the requirements from the city. My dad and family have been in the restaurant business all their life, so I understand where they’re coming from. I sit on my little spot and try to mind my own business and take care of business.”
“We obviously would like to see a fair balance and we appreciate the concern that there is about fair competition between mobile food vendors and brick-and-mortar restaurants,” said Val Yazell, economic development director for the city of Springfield. “We know brick-and-mortar restaurants want to ensure that food trucks are subject to the same operating regulations, while the food truck operators would like regulators to think more about what regulations are appropriate for their industry. We understand that there is that kind of balancing act.” She said that while the city applauds the fact that small-business owners have thought outside the box and realize that food trucks represent a unique opportunity, they also understand the frustration of restaurants that might find a competitor parking in front of or very near to their business. “We just want to ensure that everyone feels that they have a fair advantage for their business.”
For his part, Twyford contends that permit problems and other issues with the city have affected his business in a negative way. “You hear people say food trucks don’t have any overhead. Oh really? We’ve got trucks and we pay real estate tax and it would probably scare people how much sales tax we have to pay to the city of Springfield.” He mentioned that he has worked with the city council and has found support from Ward 6 alderman Kristin DiCenso but has concluded that this kind of support only goes so far. “It’s just one of those deals – if somebody complains about it, that’s it. If they come in and blindside you, there’s nothing to be done. In Peoria and St. Louis things are very food truck friendly, but here, just an hour down the road, you’ve got the opposite.”
Scott Faingold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.