Food truck owner wants Twin Cities to allow trucks on streets.

LEWISTON — Out of his bright pink and white box truck, dressed in a T-shirt featuring logos including “We Are Poutine,” Randy Smith slings decadent french-fries delectables.

Maine lobster and sherried lobster bisque over fries. Sausage, bacon, pepperoni and cheese over fries.

Shaved steak, green peppers, sauteed onions and cheese over — yes, fries.

In a three-hour stretch on a busy day, he’ll cook 600 pounds of french fries in his $50,000 restaurant on wheels.

Smith takes his Pinky D’s food truck — he calls it his mobile poutinerie — to festivals, private offices and, on rare occasions, down to the streets of Portland.

But he’s not hot after lunch crowds on Lisbon Street, Main Street or any other office-lined thoroughfares in Lewiston.

He’s not allowed there.

Rules prevent food trucks on Lewiston city streets, even with a license. Ditto for Auburn.

Smith is on a quiet, one-man mission to change that.

Across Maine, and throughout the country, a patchwork of local ordinances regulate where food trucks can be, and when. Portland changed its rules under pressure in 2012. Freeport loosened its rules earlier this year.

“All these other cities and towns are starting to come around,” said Smith, 50, of Lisbon Falls. “Lewiston, it just seems like it’s time to continue the discussion.”

Food truck sales nationally are expected to grow more than 5 percent this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, making it the second-fastest-growing restaurant segment.

Matt Geller, CEO of the National Food Truck Association, says food trucks are popular with entrepreneurs because of the relatively low overhead — it’s easier to start a truck than a restaurant, easier to take a risk with funky cuisine — and popular with customers because the trucks offer diners the chance to try something new, interact with the chef and mix with fellow food truck fans.

“Anything brand new is going to cause kind of a ruckus sometimes,” Geller said. “I think for the most part, cities want to do right by the consumer base, but sometimes you get kind of stuck in this anti-choice (mind-set), more about protecting restaurants than you do, ‘Hey, let’s open this up.'”

He’s seen some communities quickly revisit ordinances when lobbied; others, less so.

Geller, who started the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, said that association sued 13 cities in three years to allow food trucks on their streets and worked with another 13 to do the same.

“When we started being successful in cities, we didn’t need lawsuits anymore,” he said.

Foot traffic

Lewiston has 12 businesses licensed as “roving diners,” according to the city clerk’s office, a figure that includes food trucks, hot dog carts and a Schwan’s frozen food truck.

Once licensed, they are allowed to operate on private property, with the property owner’s permission; they are prohibited from operating on city streets without special permission, said Gil Arsenault, director of planning and code enforcement. (City permission is short-lived and from the chief of police, after checking with public works, according to staff.)

Smith, who’s been in the restaurant industry for 32 years and has one of those 12 licenses, instead drives onto private property, lining up a month’s worth of business in parking lots at places like Maine Bucket Co. and TD Bank to serve employees at lunch.

He started his food truck just over two years ago, tired, he said, of chasing help for his former restaurant. Most days, it’s just him working in the 85-square-foot stainless steel kitchen, dishing out one of 30 poutine specialties.

Last spring, Smith taught a food truck class to culinary students intrigued with the industry, at Lewiston Regional Technical Center’s Green Ladle.

“They see ‘Food Truck Wars’ and ‘Eat St.’ TV glamorizes a lot of things, as we know,” Smith said. “Like any business, you’ve got to work hard at it to make it work, to be successful, at least. We scour the fairs, the festivals.” 

Diners tend to be women, age 30 and up, looking for a grab-and-go bite. 

“It’s a 40-year-old professional, artsy — that’s the demographics of food trucks,” Smith said. “They don’t want to bring a brown bag every day.”

Where there’s a food truck scene, as in Portland, where the city has given out 20 licenses, trucks tend to get along, he said. Each has a niche and benefits from the increased foot traffic of being close together. If two people are out for lunch, one may want a deep-fried peanut butter, bacon, banana and honey sandwich (available from the food truck PB&ME), the other may want Arabian barbecue (from CN Shawarma).

“The burger boys. The meatball girls. We’ve all got names for each other,” Smith said. “And then you’ve got the coneheads; they do everything in a pizza cone.”

Where tension can arise is with the locals, the existing brick-and-mortar restaurants.

“I do think it’s something desirable and neat,” said Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s director of economic and community development. But the presence of food trucks has to be weighed against “the dichotomy of someone who’s invested in brick and mortar and paying rent and having that tax base, and then, unfairly, somebody just pulls up, not paying any taxes. What impact does that have on the other? That’s sort of a broader discussion to have.”

Smith said he wants to be fair, and that a lot of local restaurateurs are friends.

Eric Agren, who owns the restaurant Fuel and also started Marche, both in downtown Lewiston, said he firmly believes the more food options, the better.

“I don’t think there should be any restrictions,” Agren said. “It’s going to make people more competitive; the diner is going to have more choice and, probably in the long run, better food, because we all raise our game when we have competition, and that’s a good thing.”

DaVinci’s Eatery owner Jules Patry, a longtime friend of Smith’s, said he wasn’t aware of Lewiston’s restrictions on food trucks. He’s not sure what relaxing those would mean.

“My opinion might be tainted depending on how it affected my business, honestly,” Patry said. “I can say I don’t have a problem with it. (But) if I was in my brick-and-mortar building watching everybody eat at the food truck, I might have a different opinion.”

‘We can co-exist’

One of Patry’s chefs, Chris Rose, is building his own food truck.

The 26-year-old chef at DaVinci’s and the Augusta Country Club has been cooking since age 13. 

“I’ve always wanted a restaurant. Jules actually told me to think small,” said Rose, of Durham. “All I have is a truck and a dream. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

He and his future father-in-law are retrofitting a 14-foot Kurbmaster into the future home base of Papa Toddo’s, where he’ll serve gourmet burritos and quesadillas (lobster mac and cheese, fried haddock, desserts). He hopes to be on the road next summer.

“I feel like it’s the dawn of the food truck,” Rose said. “People are fast-moving now and we’re so busy. Food on the go is just the thing.”

He wouldn’t mind a change in local ordinances that would allow food trucks on public streets but require they stay a certain distance from existing restaurants.

“We’re going to give them their space and we’re not trying to be their competition. There’s plenty of people to feed,” Rose said. “We can co-exist.”

Geller, at the National Food Truck Association, which is itself a coalition of soon-to-be 18 regional food truck associations, said he supports ordinances built around public health and safety. Food should be up to code. Trucks should be routinely inspected. They shouldn’t be allowed to park in a way that blocks traffic or sight lines.

He argued that concerns about existing restaurants shouldn’t enter into it.

“Blockbuster video paid a lot of property tax but (cities) didn’t shut out Netflix,” Geller said. “In a market economy, we don’t want the government to decide what’s fair and what’s not; we want the market economy to be able to determine where and how I spend my own money.”

The city of Auburn has given out eight mobile food vendor licenses, which impose restrictions similar to Lewiston’s about operating on city streets, according to the city clerk’s office. (In both cities, those counts don’t include food trucks or carts that can roll in temporarily for festivals and special events.)

While Smith does have city permission to sell at Auburn’s Festival Plaza during Auburn Community Band performances, he’s starting his lobbying efforts in Lewiston, he said, because he sees more clusters of potential customers there.

Sarah Sutton and her husband, Karl, who own the Bite Into Maine food truck, known for its lobster rolls, lobbied in Portland for that city’s ordinance changes.

The process took two years, she said.

Their advice to Smith: Get a city councilor to help champion the cause.

“We were fortunate to have a branch of the city government, Portland Creative, to help us draft things and move it through the system,” Sarah Sutton said.

She thinks the recession helped kick-start food trucks’ recent popularity.

“It was a way for out-of-work chefs to start their own business without as much overhead, and the price point for consumers was great, too,” Sutton said. “The mobility factor is huge. It is a fun way to have events catered, and the food and creativity coming from food trucks is so much more accessible to customers. It is definitely a different dining experience than a sit-down restaurant.”

Smith is studying food truck ordinances in Portland, Bangor and Brunswick, as well as getting more feedback from restaurateurs, and plans to submit a proposal to Lewiston’s Jeffers in the next few weeks.

“I think it’s going to happen one way or the other, either with me trying to work with the restaurants to put together a good proposal (or) somebody else may come in, all about the buck, they may not care about anybody,” Smith said. “Let’s try to put something together that works for all of us.”

His quiet crusade already appears to be getting some traction.

The city’s regulations do appear to be outdated, Jeffers said. It will be up to the Planning Board and City Council to pass any changes, “but we have begun work to update that section of the ordinances for their consideration.”

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