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April 20, 2014

City eyeing 1st-ever food truck ordinance

CULLMAN — From his perch in south Cullman at the corner of Lowe’s parking lot, Duane Coucke has spent the past year carving out his own niche in the burgeoning local food truck business.

As owner of Dewey’s Cajun Shack, he spent the early days making stops at a few different locations but has now settled in permanently at Lowe’s thanks to an agreement with the company and a steady stream of south side patrons in search of po’ boys and seafood plates.

With the City of Cullman now eyeing its first-ever food truck ordinance to establish some ground rules for the upstart vendors within the city, Coucke said he’s interested to see how the proposal works and the impact it could have to grow — or hurt — the industry.

“The food truck business is alive and well in larger metros, and it’s something that gives people a chance to experience other cultures through food,” he said. “That part, I think, is really good for Cullman. It’s a great thing if you’re able to get somebody in who is authentic Cajun or Mexican or Italian food. Sometimes you can have some people with great ideas who can really give the people of Cullman something different.”

After watching nearby cities like Birmingham run into headaches with the finer points of their ordinances in recent months, city leaders say they’re looking at several food truck guidelines to draft an ordinance that takes the better elements from regional cities to hopefully create a market that will benefit business owners and residents alike.

“We’re really just having an open discussion to see which ideas will work and what doesn’t so we can try to come up with a system that’s really fair,” city council member Clint Hollingsworth said. “Figuring out the locations will be critical, and finding ways to avoid traffic and safety issues.”

The council introduced a draft of the “Cullman Mobile Food Vendors Ordinance” earlier this week but tabled it to allow some additional tweaks before it is formally introduced for consideration.

A handful of food trucks are already operating successfully in Cullman, and Hollingsworth said the plans for a formal ordinance were born out of requests from potential vendors wanting more information about the area before they commit to launch a truck or expand service to the city.

“We’ve had people come to us who are in the business and those looking to invest in it, so it’s something we wanted to look at,” he said.

If executed well, Hollingsworth said he believes a formal ordinance — and hopefully the vendors it might bring — could be a worthwhile addition to downtown.

“We think it’ll be a great way for people to do something a little different and be able to grab lunch,” he said. “I’d imagine trucks making stops in downtown and at Depot Park, almost like you see in bigger cities. Ours will be on a different scale, obviously, but it’s exciting.”

After going through the process on his own, Coucke said he’s not opposed to the creation of an ordinance to guide future business owners — though he worries too much interference could stall the market before it has a chance to grow.

“It’s going to be interesting to see, though it’s really hard to tell the kind of impact it’ll have,” he said. “There are some things I think could’ve been made easier, because some of that process was ambiguous. But, greater minds than mine are trying to figure out how to do that. Obviously, I do like the food truck idea, and we’re a part of that, and I think we put out some great food.”

Coucke said he believes existing health and fire codes cover most of the basics needed to get started but noted an ordinance could provide some useful guidelines if it’s written well.

“Health and fire codes do a good job of making sure things as safe, as long as they’re followed and enforced,” he said. “I just hope they find a balance where it’s not so easy that everyone can get into it, but it’s easy enough where people legitimately trying to open a food truck can do it. Hopefully whatever they do will work out all right.”

Cullman Downtown Merchants Association President Lee Powell said he doesn’t know much about the food truck concept and is curious to see the effect it could have on the area. Powell noted the prevalence of so many downtown eateries and the spatial limitations between trucks and restaurants expected to be included in the ordinance as one potential factor.

Powell said he soon plans to meet with a sample of downtown restaurant owners to gauge their interest in the proposal.

“I could see that being a great thing to maybe get people walking around in downtown and around the parks. But on the flip side of that, I don’t own a restaurant in downtown and know the effect it could have,” he said. “Though you could potentially frame that as competition between food trucks and restaurants, it also opens the option for existing restaurants to possibly set up their own food trucks, if that’s something they’re interested in. Some cities really thrive on them, and others don’t seem to like them. I’m really interested to see what happens.”

Though the potential effect on brick-and-mortar restaurants obviously raises its own set of questions, the patrons who take the time to stop by Dewey’s Cajun Shack are typically unabashed fans of the food truck movement.

A constant stream of customers kept the cart busy during the lunch rush this week, and the line wrapped around the small trailer at times during peak hours.

“We really like it and wish we had more of them,” said Cullman native Travis Graves while waiting for his order early Thursday afternoon. “It’s a good concept.”

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