Folks with offices on the Capitol Square have their summer lunches all set. Food carts vending bulgogi burritos and burnt ends, Italian sausages and Caesar wraps perch on every other block.
Matt Tucker, a city of Madison zoning administrator, works downtown. He knows how good he has it with the abundance of food carts.
“The city wants to take this thing other places,” Tucker said, “places that don’t have kitchens, like bars, schools. We can bring food to people who want it.”
With recent changes to zoning code, the city of Madison wants to make food cart infrastructure more mobile. Carts can now vend on private property, unattached to a festival or other special event. Before, carts could only independently vend on public streets, on in parks under a separate event permit.
“It was against zoning code to have vending on private property,” said Meghan Blake-Horst, the city’s street vending coordinator. The changes were made “to increase opportunity for vending citywide and decrease pressure downtown.”
Before last fall, private businesses, from small State Line Distillery to University Research Park with its big parking lot, could only invite food carts to park on the street. That got awkward with the flow of foot traffic and was inconvenient when it was raining.
Now, when a tavern wants to offer patrons more than frozen pizza and pickled beets, the owner can get city approval to have a cart set up shop and sell pulled pork sandwiches in the parking lot.
The cost of a one-time approval for a business is $100 if the vending location is not close to homes, like Capital Newspapers' own building on Fish Hatchery Road. Approval costs $600 if the carts would be close to where people live. In that case, there's a conditional use approval process, which involves a public forum so neighbors can have their say.
“The city’s had a longstanding caution relative to protecting brick and mortar places from establishments that can set up temporarily with a whole lot less capital,” Tucker said. “They could come in and undercut and cause business problems related to brick and mortar places. That’s why they didn’t allow food carts on private property.”
The new laws still include a “25-foot distance separation requirement” between food carts and brick and mortar restaurants and taverns, unless the business owner gives the OK.
Tucker said a half dozen places have requested approval. The goal, Blake-Horst said, is to improve access and opportunity for food cart vendors, as well as for people in office parks.
“They’re stuck in their own mini-food desert and the only restaurant in the office building is a vending machine,” Blake-Horst said. “It provides access to what the community is asking for. They want food carts next to their building during lunch.
“We’re looking at how Madison has grown and where our employment zones (are),” she added. “And how businesses are wanting to partner with food carts as an added value to their business. Distilleries, meaderies, wineries want to partner with food carts. It’s a great partnership and it’s going to hopefully grow both businesses.”
Later this month, the city is considering ordinance language to approve larger trucks and trailers. The maximum size for a food cart vending on State Street Mall and the Capitol Concourse is 56 square feet, which rules out food trucks and trailers like Patrick Riha’s 24-foot Beef Butter BBQ.