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Column: City regulations would keep food cart from flourishing

3:57 PM, Mar. 1, 2013  |  Comments
A customer orders a tamale Thursday at Yo Chubby Gringo in Wausau. A possible city ordinance on mobile food carts could harm the business, owners J.W. and Karla Van Wagner say.
A customer orders a tamale Thursday at Yo Chubby Gringo in Wausau. A possible city ordinance on mobile food carts could harm the business, owners J.W. and Karla Van Wagner say.
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If you haven't heard by now, there is a food cart operating in downtown Wausau!

There was a lot we had to do to start our tamale business, Yo Chubby Gringo, and because of our independence and determination to work for ourselves, we built everything from the ground up. From gutting a 61-foot Mallard camper in which to build our mobile kitchen to marketing, designing logos and websites, and building our mobile food cart, we have learned a lot since we passed all the required Health Department inspections and made our debut Dec. 21 during the late-night bar scene in downtown Wausau.

We have introduced many people to their first tamale experience and have enjoyed a constant stream of new faces, interesting characters, plenty of stories and the occasional "sloppy gringos" who appear late at night, a little tipsy, seeking solace in a tamale.

Little did we know when we began construction last October that we would be knee-deep in politics four months later. What started out with no restrictions turned into an eight-page ordinance that leaves little room for our original plans to manifest. (Editor's note: A Wausau City Council committee voted last week to scrap the proposed eight-page ordinance. City leaders say they will be starting from scratch in looking at the issue.) In our opinion, too many restrictions on those who want to start up a food cart business in Wausau could keep people from ever even wanting to attempt it.

Although there is plenty of support for food cart vending, we feel our opinions so far have not been reflected in the city's process at all.

Our business is mobile! Mobility is the essence of mobile food cart vending. To remain in one spot, as the proposed ordinance originally required, would have robbed the downtown atmosphere of the energy and excitement that food carts generate. Some who had researched other cities' ordinances claimed that customers preferred the food carts to be located in the same spot so they can be found more easily. Wausau has a very small downtown. If our customers can't find us, they call or check our schedule on Facebook. If they don't find us, I'm sure the other downtown restaurants will happily feed them.

Obviously, staying a good distance from restaurants and obeying right-of-way laws is a given. We have been accused of vending in front of restaurants, and that is untrue. We have never broken any laws or caused any problems. We respect, promote and patronize the local businesses and want to help draw more shoppers and diners downtown to enjoy all the things it has to offer.

The proposed ordinance would have only allowed vending on The 400 Block when no events are going on. That's understandable for large events like Wausau's Festival of Arts, which spans from the mall to the YMCA. But we don't agree with the no vending rule during events that occur completely within the park itself.

Event organizers have voiced their opinion that it isn't fair to people who are paying to vend within an event, but the playing field really is leveled by the fact that the vendors who are not part of the event have mobile food licenses and the vendors paying to be part of the event have temporary event food licenses. These are completely different. Temporary licensees are blanketed by the event. The vendors at these events are not always required to provide their own insurance, and their health inspections are not as strict or as expensive as those of us with mobile vending licenses. Mobile food licensees like us supply our own insurances and report to a base station. The 400 Block by definition runs curb to curb. If a mobile food vendor wants to vend outside of this park boundary, that should be allowed.

Food carts are a viable business created by people who are not relying on the traditional job system but are creating jobs for themselves while bringing customers to downtown Wausau.

If City Council were to approach the issue on a case-by-case basis and work with each vendor to create balance and harmony with the businesses located downtown, we feel the food vending revolution can thrive in Wausau. If restrictions are put in place for the benefit of a few without the consideration of the opinions of the many, an unnecessary drama will be created, keeping Wausau from its true potential for advancement.

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