City gets truckin’ on mobile food ordinance

Herald file photo
Business boomed after the Tacqueria El Llano stationary trailer opened in January 2016. But less than a year after it opened, the Gonzalezes shuttered its doors. And it wasn’t because they wanted to.

By ALLEN LAMAN
alaman@dcherald.com

JASPER — Francis and Beto Gonzalez launched the Taqueria El Llano trailer to stand out. Dubois County is filled with Mexican food options, and the non-traditional dining spot provided a new, fun way for customers to experience their authentic dishes.

Business boomed after the stationary trailer opened in January 2016. Customers waited in long lines on the private property located at the corner of Third and Main streets to buy tacos, quesadillas and more.

But less than a year after it opened, the Gonzalezes shuttered its doors. And it wasn’t because they wanted to.

The topic of mobile food vendors in Jasper has stirred debate for years. Currently, the city does not have a standardized way to regulate food trucks and carts on public property.

Within a few months, however, the Jasper Common Council could be poised to approve an ordinance that would allow vendors to operate in a standardized fashion.

“The variety that gets offered with a mobile food truck, having an ordinance, it gives our people an opportunity to bring different types of foods to the community,” said Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide. “They don’t have to travel out.

“So, I’m really hoping there’s an opportunity down the road to where we can have designated evenings where they have areas within our community where we allow them to go. Where they’re not going to be competing directly with local businesses.”

Summer interns working at Jasper City Hall are assembling a mobile vendor ordinance draft based on legislation enacted in other communities. After tweaks from city officials, the proposal will be presented to government boards. Vonderheide hopes a Jasper ordinance will be in place by the fall.

According to Darla Blazey, the city’s director of community development and planning, the city does have a temporary use permit that can be issued in lieu of the system that is in the works. At least two other Jasper businesses have sold or will sell their products in satellite or floating locations in the city.

Doug Watson, owner of The Dog Haus, sells his gourmet hot dogs at a brick-and-mortar building on Second Street. He also tried dishing them out them from a traveling cart set up outside of the Petsense building on the city’s north side, but announced this morning he would cease operations at the location due to a lack of foot traffic.

Strasse Pops, an organic popsicle cart owned and operated by Alana and Justin Hulsman, was recently approved by the city’s Board of Public Works and Safety to sell its all-natural products in select Jasper city parks.

Alana and Watson both are in favor of allowing mobile food vendors to bring their products to the streets of Jasper.

“I think that it would just open up a door to new opportunities,” Alana said. “There’s a lot of people that want to be in food service or have businesses. But the risks, and the overhead involved, it’s just not something a lot of people — including myself — are very comfortable with.”

The taco trailer’s situation was a messy one that may not be addressed in the first form of the city’s mobile food vendor ordinance. Because it remained in the same spot and operated like a building, city leaders previously labeled it a food trailer — not a mobile food truck. It ultimately closed after the business’ temporary, one-year operation permit expired and was not renewed by the Jasper Board of Zoning Appeals.

Letters from a resident and a nearby business read at a March 2017 zoning meeting listed concerns with the Gonzalezes’ trailer. Among them were the fixture’s lack of mobility and the worry that mobile food vendors take business away from traditional restaurants.

During that meeting, Francis presented a petition with roughly 300 signatures in favor of extending her permit. One attendee also pointed to the similarities the Smalley Coffee trailer — which is still operating today in a parking lot on Newton Street — had to the Taqueria El Llano trailer.

City Attorney Renee Kabrick said Wednesday that there weren’t many differences between the two vendors. Officials were under the impression that Smalley owner Josh Premuda’s business would just be “a trailer pulled into that lot,” Kabrick said.

But the coffee trailer was later hooked into underground city utilities — changing it from a temporary to a permanent structure.

It would be a hardship for Premuda if the city asked him to close his doors and rip the lines out after he incurred the expense of those hookups, Kabrick added. But had those permanent utilities not been installed, the business might not still be there.

Francis said it did feel unfair to have to close the taco trailer for good in early 2017.

“We didn’t want to give it up,” Francis said. “We wanted to keep it going.”

But it is what it is, she said.

After multiple tabled zoning votes at Francis' request, she withdrew her permit request due to a new rule from the health department that required she have a commissary kitchen to operate from, as well as bathrooms.

The requirements didn't make sense to her, and it felt like she was being told to just open a restaurant.
The trailer was so successful that it helped the couple fund the opening of a storefront restaurant with more menu options on West 28th Street just off of Newton Street. In 2018, the Gonzalezes opened a grocery store in the building space adjacent to the restaurant.

Recently, Francis used the trailer to serve food at a graduation party, and she hopes to utilize it for more catering purposes in the future.

Still, someday, she’d like to be able to operate the taco trailer again in Jasper or Huntingburg like she did for that first year of business in 2016.



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