Food cart frenzy
Growing a business sector 56 square feet at a time.
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Long before the tiny house craze or the trend toward downsized living took hold, Madison vendors have been selling cookies, falafel, popcorn, and sandwiches from food carts. These days, those micro-businesses have a growing impact on the city’s culture and economy.
From the Library Mall to the Capitol Square to business locations around town, food carts are expanding in number, getting more creative, and offering distinct menus from an equally unique group of entrepreneurs.
“Food carts represent one of the most diverse communities in any level of business, from Korean to Mexican,” notes Meghan Blake-Horst, street-vending coordinator for the City of Madison, who just took the reins from her predecessor Warren Hansen after his retirement.
When we spoke with Blake-Horst, she was knee-deep in 2017–2018 vending licensing applications and renewals, so current data was unavailable, but last year, she reports, the city registered about 80 licensed food carts, including 49 in the highly sought-after Library Mall/Concourse area. Revenue to the city was about $60,000.
Food carts on the Mall/Concourse are limited to a maximum of 56 square feet in size, while those operating elsewhere (e.g. Camp Randall, Southeast campus vending area) can be twice as large. Generally, a required street vendor license in Madison costs $200 annually plus another $1,000 per individual for a Mall/Concourse Food Vendor License. Other fees may add to that. A late-night vending license, which allows food to be sold in designated areas between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., ranges from $200 to $500 a year depending on the size of the cart.
The city’s food cart rules are extensive, and some vendors hope for a relaxing of those related to vending on private property, arguing that places like Austin, Texas and Portland, Ore. have vibrant food-cart communities that aren’t so restrictive and cost even less.
Geographically, the isthmus downtown limits the number of vending spaces available and makes Madison unique, Blake-Horst explains. “On the other hand, Madison is a model for other cities and we are creating innovation here, as well. We also have employment zones where carts can set up, such as University Research Park, American Family Insurance, or UW Hospitals.”
Currently, food carts outside of the Mall/Concourse area can vend in rights-of-way (i.e., often a strip of land between sidewalks and the curb) around town, but not on a person’s private lawn, for example. That rule limits business potential, some food cart owners claim.
Matt Tucker, Madison’s zoning administrator, hears it all the time. “Any place is going to be more profitable if there are less restrictions,” he agrees, “but the city has considerations for orderliness, safety, aesthetics, and they look at the impact of businesses on neighboring properties.”
In fact, he notes, the city has approached food carts cautiously for decades. “We have a long-standing policy here that generally prohibits vending or open sales on private property. The basic premise behind that has historically been to protect brick-and-mortar stores, like restaurants.”
From a development standpoint, Tucker says the city has rules and regulations around how properties are developed, where buildings sit, how parking lots are designed, how pedestrians move through parking lots, or how trucks locate. “Just letting food carts go where they want isn’t good, either. How do you manage orderliness?”
The devil is in the details, he says. “I have looked at what other communities are doing. Yes, we have a lot of rules and regulations but our city is absolutely thriving. Part of the reason, I would argue, is because we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Madison does make exceptions, Tucker notes, such as allowing vendors to participate in special events like church picnics or school fairs, and it allows a group like Let’s Eat Out! to back pop-up food cart events around town, such as the Isthmus Food Cart fest in Central Park.
But the reality is that food carts and vending are just one of many items under Tucker’s watch. “I have a long list of things I need to do in zoning,” he states. “This is one of the items on that long list.”
Yet with the number of food carts increasing and many restaurants starting their own carts, pressure is mounting. “We know we have a population that likes street food, and we have a system,” Tucker says, “but I always have to think about what could happen at that church picnic, or the people across from the church who may be impacted. How is trash being disposed of? What are the hours and what activities are going on?”
It’s not that the department won’t ever relax the private property rules, he explains, but it’s also not in zoning’s immediate control. “We need a policymaker to start the discussion,” Tucker says. “Whatever the alders, the mayor, the city council decide is what we’ll do.”