The City Council last week overwhelmingly backed changing the hours of operation for the city’s “hawkers and peddlers.” For those unfamiliar with the term, that means primarily food trucks and hot dog stands, what are now called mobile vendors.
Not only did the council back extending the daily hours until 10 p.m., and 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with a start time of 7 a.m., they spoke glowingly about the benefits of such enterprises. At a previous meeting, the idea was even raised that Keene could eventually earn a reputation as a “foodie city,” as Councilor At-Large George S. Hansel put it.
Councilor Randy Filiault didn’t even want to stop there. He proposed doing away entirely with regulating hours of operation on food trucks and carts. He noted the common complaint that Keene isn’t seen as friendly to business.
Some of the same councilors raving about the benefits of mobile vendors now were also on the council seven years ago, when a downtown food truck owner seeking to open just an hour earlier to offer breakfast fare was shot down. The main argument at that point was that eateries paying rent or taxes, employing workers and such, ought to be given some degree of protection from impromptu set-ups with little overhead costs.
Said Councilor Mitch Greenwald: “(Food stands are) an accessory to the ambiance of the downtown. I want to say we need to respect the downtown merchants that are struggling and paying taxes.”
Mayor Kendall Lane, then a councilor, agreed: “The overhead those restaurants have is substantial and … opening early is somewhat problematic.”
The request was denied, while another by the same vendor — to remain open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — was put off. In that case, councilors argued the last thing the city ought to want is more reason for drunks coming out of downtown bars to go looking for food or standing around in a line awaiting service.
“I don’t want to do anything to encourage people out at 2 o’clock in the morning,” one said. “... These are individuals who are coming and going from bars, which is exactly what we want to discourage on Main Street.”
The vendor, Kevin Schmelzer, eventually gave up and moved to Buffalo.
This time around, nearly half the council saw no issue with late-night service, though others raised concerns about noise, lighting and the prospect of safety for people walking around drunk in the dark in search of their favorite snack. Ultimately, by a single vote, the council chose to keep the hours in line with the city’s noise regulations. Vendors can still seek permission to stay open later.
If the wholesale change of heart in general seems odd, consider much has changed in the past few years. For one thing, food trucks have acquired much more cachet than the “hot dog carts” of old. They’re lauded across the nation and featured on TV shows and in magazines as a way get creative cuisine to customers on the cheap. Just in Keene over the past several years, we’ve seen them featuring barbecue, Vietnamese fare and more. The Street & Savory truck often found along Emerald Street offers everything from burgers to dumplings to poutine.
Further, food trucks have evolved as a business model, more in line with the “gig economy” of Airbnb and Lyft. They don’t necessarily set up in the same space, and use social media to get word out regarding the day’s location and menu. Perhaps, too, there’s been less opposition from owners of existing restaurants this time around. None was apparent at the meetings the council held on the topic.
In any case, kudos to councilors for re-evaluating their stance. Being more open to new types of businesses is a good step, so long as the city continues to hold them to the same standards of health and operations as others. The city government ought not to be stepping in to determine which local businesses succeed or fail. That doesn’t mean going all-out to cater to one segment of the industry, but it does mean giving them at least an equal chance of surviving.