This summer, half a dozen food trucks were established within Soldotna, or tightly hugging the city limits. A renovated RV, open-air utility trailers and carry-on trailers house steaming stuffed waffles, fresh fish tacos, and gourmet burgers.
After years of issuing temporary permits to mobile vendors, the city is making the decision to look into the current regulations governing the rising number of migratory businesses.
Within the first three hours of its opening day on June 2, the Alaskan Taco Truck sold out.
“We never thought that would happen,” said Mike Beals, who helps his fiancee Shannon Lindley run her open-air food truck startup. “It has just gotten better and better.”
Best known for its massive burritos, the utility trailer allows patrons to see the entire production of their menu item transform from separate ingredients into a piping plateful of food. Lindley makes from scratch the salsas that top the Mexican-style meals, and they purchase their meats and vegetables locally.
The couple, both in their mid-20s, decided to open the business last winter after Shannon’s father Rick Lindley passed away. His death was a catalyst in the choice to finally open a food business, she said.
The former owner of Rick’s Tire & Repair previously located in Sterling, developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which leads to rapidly destroys brain tissue, Beals said.
“He was 61 years old, and in better shape than I was,” Beals said. “He was a rock star. They were best friends, and he was always so supportive of her.”
Once the decision was made, with only a few dollars in their pocket, the couple tore down a trailer to its frame and renovated it with an oven, flat top and refrigerator, and opened three months later.
Beals said initially it was a challenge finding a location for their business. After bouncing around, they finally settled into the parking lot of Johnson’s Tire Service, who has been very supportive of their presence, Beals said.
Whether a business is operating on city or private property, if it is within the city limits, the vendor must be issued a permit by the city, said Planning and Zoning’s GIS Technician Austin Johnson
For some food trucks, the transient lifestyle of a food truck can easy turn the summer into chasing one permit to the next.
Katie Cole, who co-owns Wook Waffaz Waffle Emporium with Egan Gleason, the unmistakable neon green RV that skirts the border of Soldotna on the Kenai Spur Highway, said the mobility of their business actually created a few hurdles.
Cole established a strong media presence for Wook’s with a radio ad, updated Facebook page and by booking space at the biggest summer events around the Kenai Peninsula, from Mount Marathon in Seward to the Kenai Peninsula Fair in Ninilchik to the Funny River Bluegrass Festival on Funny River Road.
The business partners used their vehicle to its fullest, also providing food for hungry dipnetters on the Kenai Beach during the peak of fishing season, Cole said. Constantly chasing down permits to operate in the different locations left her hoping to set up shop in a permanent structure.
Cole and Gleason, both avid winter sports enthusiasts, decided to transform Gleason’s RV into Wook’s last winter after a successful first stint at Tailgate Alaska. After asking a friend from Australia to vacate the space above the front and passenger seats now used for dry food storage, and replacing two bunk beds with a sink, they were able to expand their selection to include savory and sweet stuffed waffles.
The entire summer revolved around the truck, which at times felt confining, but that is the nature of the first year for a business, Cole said. The plan is to keep growing, and further develop the best way to operate.
Cole said next year she hopes to post up in a new location next year, perhaps in Sterling or Cooper Landing. Ideally the next spot would be beside another business, such as a coffee stand, which she believes could draw in more customers for both establishments.
The central Kenai Peninsula does not have many breakfast diners, Cole said. Setting up by a coffee stand could satisfy customers on their way into town looking for a morning meal right next to their favorite espresso stand.
While Cole and Gleason are shutting down Wook’s for the winter, The AK Taco Shack will stay open, but operate out of a different vehicle.
Lindley and Beals are in the midst of renovating a motor home that will have a drive thru to serve customers still wanting tacos but who don’t want to get out of their cars in below freezing temperatures.
After a successful summer, both Wook’s and the Taco shack will be continuing their businesses, tweaking operations as they go.
During the August 6 Soldotna Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, Johnson presented possibilities for regulating food truck permits, based on other municipalities’ standards. Cities such as Kenai, Homer, Seward and Anchorage who have established Mobile Food Vendor policies.
Johnson defined a food truck as “an enclosed truck or a trailer, or a similar unit that is mobile or can be moved with a truck.” He said they are “independent, self-enclosed and used for the preparation and sale or donation of food.”
Johnson said it was the first time there was any official discussion on reviewing the permits.
Johnson used Tommy’s Snack Shack, which is located in the Trustworthy Hardware parking lot, and Blue Moon Burgers across from Enstar on the Kenai Spur Highway, as examples of different food trucks present in and around Soldotna. Firehouse BBQ sits on the plot of land right beside Wook’s.
Currently the Temporary Use Permits cause several problems for food trucks, including the inability to clearly regulate signage. There are no insurance regulations, and the administrative process that requires the disclosure of drainage and parking may not always apply, according to a memo from Johnson.
In the memo, Johnson suggested following a common model in Southcentral Alaska, but issuing a calendar year permit, which would expire December 31 of the year of issue. He said this could significantly reduce the administrative load during busy summer months.
Kenai and Homer do not regulate the location of food truck vendors, and do not require any site plan review, which Soldotna does require, but Johnson said was not always necessary. Seward has a program that designates specific city zones where food trucks may be allowed to park.
Johnson also suggested coming up with language on trash disposal, furniture placement, and decreasing permit fees.
In an email Stephanie Queen said the city has not yet decided how to follow up the first discussion on regulating the food truck permits, but that it will continue in the near future.
Kelly Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.