Officials plan to bring food trucks to Lexington

Sometime this spring, people who work and live in downtown Lexington finally might be able to enjoy the food phenomenon that urban hipsters around the country have been tweeting about for years: food trucks.

A city task force is hammering out details for a pilot project to allow mobile food vendors to rotate among several locations downtown.

Bring on the wood-fired pizza, the artisanal ice cream, the Korean barbecue, the Hawaiian sliders, the curbside comfort food, the best local organic home-grown fusion food-on-a-stick quirky cuisine you can think of. Lexington can take it.

We've read about it, watched it on TV and heard about it on the radio until our tummies rumble. Now we want to eat.

Anthony Rios, who runs Dogs for Cats, a mobile gourmet hot dog stand, knows that the market is there.

"If you take a walk downtown for lunch, good luck trying to get food within a half-hour and get back to work," Rios said. Regular restaurants downtown, "they're packed."

If the pilot program comes through, Rios is ready to roll in a larger truck and sell "Italian barbecue," with handmade pasta, meats and sauces.

But there are several regulatory hurdles yet to be cleared. The city's Itinerant Merchant Task Force, which has been looking at this and related issues since last year, must finalize exactly how the pilot program would work and get it approved by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council. The task force meets at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Government Center to consider eight potential locations, including four that would allow only sidewalk food carts.

Councilwoman Peggy Henson, who chairs the task force, said she is optimistic that if she and her colleagues can get their work done by March, the pilot program could go before the council this spring.

"There are some roadblocks as to who would administer it, but we'll have that discussion on the 25th," Henson said. "I really hope we can work out all the issues and allow these food vendors a good place. ... I do think they can provide character to the city in an appropriate place, a place where there's entertainment, nightlife."

Details of the proposal

Currently, there are no regulations to permit or regulate food trucks. About the only food that current state regulations allow to be sold anywhere, anytime are hot dogs, nacho cheese and ice cream. The task force has been working on a way to get more on the street-food menu.

Under the proposed pilot program, as many as 18 food vendors with proper permits could get into a rotation at as many as eight locations: in public spaces on Limestone in front of the courthouses; on Mill Street near the Fifth Third Bank Building; on Upper Street along the CentrePointe block; and, for carts only, on Vine and Quality streets near the Transit Center and on Main Street at the corners of both Upper Street and Limestone. Businesses or private entities also could ask to host a site, Henson said.

The vendors could sell food and beverages 7 a.m. to 4 a.m. seven days a week to tap markets including morning commuters, lunchtime diners and late-night after-bar crowds. But to meet state regulations, they would have to rotate every 14 days and not come back to the same location for 30 days.

Vendors would be required to comply with all state and local health department and business licensing requirements. And they might not be able to operate during special events that require separate permits.

In consideration of existing establishments, the pilot program might restrict mobile food vendors so they couldn't set up within 250 feet of a restaurant.

A difficult recipe

Getting to this point has not been easy. Vendors want a central location, easily accessible to sidewalks, and no red tape. But potential sites such as Cheapside Park often host special events that make it unavailable. Plus, businesses often don't want a food vendor blocking the sidewalk. And the city can't bend health and licensing permits.

"We are trying to work within the confines of the health department regulations and work with the bricks-and-mortar businesses and the food vendors to find locations for them to be," said Renee Jackson, president of the Downtown Lexington Corp.

The idea of set locations, similar to a program in Cincinnati, is to let people know where to look. In 2010, Cincinnati established three downtown mobile food zones (a fourth was later added to meet demand). The food was a big hit, but vendors complained that the city wouldn't let them set up in prime areas for foot traffic.

Lexington is likely to suffer the same restrictions. But rotating among the zones, as required by state rules, means vendors might get a more even shot at customers. "Nobody has the premier spot all the time," Jackson said.

"The whole idea behind the pilot project is that it's a way to allow vendors who sell something besides hot dogs to be out there legitimately," she said. "That's not to say you won't find somebody out there doing something now. But it's very difficult."

What are other cities doing?

The task force has looked into what other cities do to figure out what might work here. But there is no easy template.

■ Nashville, which has drawn national attention from food shows and critics alike, has struggled to come up with regulations for its street scene.

■ In Torrance, Calif., in November, police crashed a food truck fund-raising event at a school and cited six trucks, angering parents and teachers who had hoped to raise $50,000 from the hungry horde.

■ Last year in New York and Los Angeles, police rousted food trucks in their cities, writing tickets for taking up metered parking spaces continuously.

■ Athens, Ga., which has a lively local food scene, decided to ban the trucks from public property.

■ In Miami, which considers itself the birthplace of food truck culture, the trucks exist outside the regulatory umbrella.

Lexington hopes to avoid problems by coming up with a scheme for legitimate permits. One problem looms: What kind of licensing will be required?

Louisville initially required each employee to have a vendor ID with a costly background check, a move that is unpopular with vendors. Last fall, officials eased off a bit, requiring just one per cart.

Cities with extremely successful food truck scenes put a lot into it, said Melynda Jamison, a city staffer who has researched the issue for the task force. Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle have city divisions devoted to permitting and enforcement.

That's not going to be possible in Lexington, which has serious budget problems, said Henson, the councilwoman. She said she has reluctantly agreed that licensing might have to be dropped for the pilot program.

But the task force also is working quickly to complete an overall ordinance to cover food vendors and other types of merchants, who now often operate without effective control. The ordinance, which also would go before the Urban County Council, probably will include a downtown district that allows extended hours of operation. That is drawing some concern from residents, particularly in the University of Kentucky campus areas, Councilwoman Diane Lawless said.

"I'm very supportive of this, but in the right place," she said. "We don't want some unintended impact that will ruin it for everybody."

Eager to move forward

While those wrinkles are being ironed out, the task force is eager to get something on the streets this year.

"If we can't come to some kind of agreement, we may go another warm season without having anything," said Jackson of the Downtown Lexington Corp.

That's clearly not what the hungry masses want to hear. She said she has had calls and messages from many people, all saying the same thing: "Overwhelmingly, people want the choices."

Vendors are eager to tap that hunger and have high hopes for the pilot project.

"It's the only thing that can work. But I think it can build into something," said Jim Voskuhl, owner of Hardwood Pizza Co., which sells thin-crust pizza made in a wood-fired mobile cart at the Lexington Farmers Market and downtown events. "Who doesn't like street food?"