Food truck issue divides restaurants and eaters

JACKSON, Wyo. — The topic of food trucks has been a hot mess of a topic since first brought up back in the beginning of June. Debate on whether special leeway should be given to allow local food trucks to operate in town (perhaps at Phil Baux Park) has run the gamut—from we don’t need them, to we really would like the option, to absolutely not from the local brick-and-mortar eateries.

Back on June 1, it was a different discussion. Food trucks were brought up along with outside parklets reopening efforts as ways to keep people distanced and allow a mechanism for local restaurants to survive what looked like a bleak summer.

Fast forward to the new norm—Jackson is slammed with record-breaking tourism and no one can find a quick bite. Food trucks would solve that, says Mayor Pete Muldoon, who has spearheaded the effort to get meals on wheels downtown so working stiffs have an option outside of McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Dairy Queen. Existing businesses worry about the bite it is going to take out of their bottom line.

“I am totally against food trucks unless it’s on private property. All of us with brick-and-mortar pay a tremendous amount of money in fees to the town to build anything. Matter of fact it’s outrageous and is almost impossible to do,” said Joe Rice, owner of Blue Collar Restaurant Group. “To let food trucks use public land for next to nothing is unfair competition and a slap in the face to all of us that have spent millions of dollars to build our businesses.”

Rice’s Merry Piglets and Liberty Burger have been slammed from open to close on most days.

Nikki Gill, the operator of Jackson Drug, was also adamantly against food trucks.

“I am urging you to leave the rules regarding food trucks as is. Our local restaurants just survived the hardest three months they’ve ever had to weather. Local restaurants have the three summer months to make enough money to get them through the other nine and that’s if they don’t have to shut down for COVID related reasons,” Gill said. “Yes, restaurants are busy now, but that’s not a bad thing. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single person that walks through our doors is vitally important to our survival. Adding another layer of difficulty and competition during this time is a slap in the face to those of us working our butts off to stay afloat.”

Chris Hansen, owner of Pizzeria Caldera, went a step further, calling the town council’s efforts to ease restrictions for food trucks a solution in search of a problem. In a Guest Shot published last week in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, Hansen said he has not heard of or witnessed any problems with people getting food, and suggested the mayor and council worry about larger issues like food insecurity in general throughout the valley.

Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce agreed, food procurement does not appear to be an issue with visitors.

“We now have the only two visitor services locations operating in the valley seven days a week and we have not had a single comment related to the issue you have brought up for discussion,” Howe stated in an email to the council.

Howe and Hansen added that crowds have already begun to diminish in his estimation, and that is another issue the council has struggled with: chasing numbers.

How long will the current tourism crush continue? Are quickly-prepared affordable meal options truly scarce or limited, and is that due to COVID?

In the end, most of the council seemed unwilling to follow Muldoon’s push for food trucks. Those that did acknowledge obtaining a quick bite might be an issue, and one government should help solve, suggested marketing to tourists, directing them to what councilwoman Hailey Morton Levinson called “quiet restaurants” that are not experiencing high-volume business.

“It is partly advertising, and messaging,” said councilman Arne Jorgensen who admitted parklets have raised the profile of restaurants utilizing them on the square. “They have proven to be an attractant.”

Jorgensen also shared that he’s spoken with a few local restaurants that also have a licensed food truck and none are planning on operating one due to the inability to staff them.

Councilman Jonathan Schechter also worried about food trucks being adequately staffed.

Councilman Jim Stanford said food trucks seemed like a reasonable idea to him but admitted he was already adjusting to the new reality of finding food.

Muldoon and Stanford voted for food trucks. They were outvoted by Morton Levinson, Jorgensen, and Schechter who opted to park the plan for now.

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