Eats on the streets

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March 29, 2010
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes
// City looks to usher in era of curbside munching //

The streets of cities such as Portland, Milwaukee and Austin, Texas are lined with carts selling a wide range of foods, from crepes to tacos, from burgers to veggie sandwiches. But in Minneapolis, much of that has been relegated to a handful of hot dog carts.

Not for long, it seems.

City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) is pushing forward an ordinance that would bring as many as two dozen new food carts to the core of Downtown, with offerings ranging from the familiar to the extravagant.

“This is a great opportunity to add some liveliness to our streets,” Goodman aide Doug Kress said.

The bustling of street vendors is something Minneapolis hasn’t seen for more than a century. Thank the law — many, many layers of the law.

“It was very convoluted,” Kress said. “You have multiple things that are involved — zoning issues, public works issues, regulatory service issues.”

State issues, too. Statute hasn’t allowed vendors to remain in one location for more than 21 days. (The city has lobbied to have that changed; legislative approval is expected in April.)

Meanwhile, Minneapolis regulations currently don’t allow licensing of vendors that sell anything but mostly prepackaged food. Think hot dogs, popcorn and ice cream.

Backers of the ordinance have a vision of churros, croissants and sandwiches. Portland, one of the main cities looked at by staff, has a booming street-food scene, with such offerings as Thai chicken and Korean sliders.

If Minneapolis is to see such variety, it would be up to the city’s established restaurateurs. The proposed ordinance, to meet state law, would only allow licensed kitchens to start up food carts. That means someone such as Hell’s Kitchen — which, according to restaurant co-founder Cynthia Gerdes is already hoping to put Hell’s on wheels — or Pizza Luce would have to lead the charge.

Sarah Harris, chief operating officer of the Downtown Improvement District, has big expectations.

“If we get people out of their buildings and they can walk up and down their sidewalks in a new energized way, I’m sure this program can be successful,” Harris said.

The City Council is expected to vote on the ordinance at its April 2 meeting. If approved, license applications could begin May 1.

Questions and hopes

The ordinance has a fairly strong air of support, evidenced by a packed-room March 22 public hearing, but there are those who are worried — in particular, Downtown business owners who have been waiting for several years to profit from the opening of Target Field.

The arrival of 25 new food venues could add to an already lengthy list of economic challenges for existing businesses, said Tim Mahoney, owner of the Loon Café and a member of the Warehouse District Business Association.

“It’s been a tough road the last couple of years,” Mahoney said. “With the ballpark opening up, we were finally seeing a glimmer of hope.”

Some building owners are equally concerned, especially those with vacant space.

“My property, I pay $167,000 in taxes each year,” said David Kabanuk, who owns the 711 Hennepin Ave. building. “I find it very concerning that I have to compete with someone who has to pay [a $483 annual fee] to stand next to me.”

Then there’s the issue of noise. Under the proposed ordinance, vendors wouldn’t be able to stay open past 10 p.m. if they’re within 300 feet of a residence. But during operational hours, many likely would run noisy generators, since the ordinance would forbid them from tapping into public power sources.

City officials have their own questions. Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said he pictured street vending as a prime food industry entryway for those who can’t afford the start-up costs of a restaurant. Linking the ordinance to licensed kitchens prohibits that, he said.

“I support the concept,” Lilligren said. “I support a number of provisions in [the proposed ordinance]. But I’m not sure this one is ready to go in a way that I can support it.”

There are other questions: What would prevent well-funded fast-food chains from applying for all of the licenses? Why wouldn’t other parts of the city be allowed to take part? Why would brick-and-mortar businesses be allowed to decide which vendors can stand in front of them?

Kress acknowledged that the ordinance likely isn’t perfect at this point. However, getting the ball rolling on street food could be more important.

“This is a first attempt,” he said. “This is the beginning of it. I think time will tell on how successful [it is] and how people react. But it will also depend on how creative and how exciting some of the opportunities and the types of foods that actually will appear.

“We have high hopes,” he said.

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, ctraudes@mnpubs.com or twitter.com/sctraudes.