Don’t want to risk dining out during a pandemic? Don’t want to wait for a table during peak tourist season? Want a bite to eat while you’re enjoying a beer at the only brewery in South Baldwin County? Soon, diners in Gulf Shores will have a new to-go option for dining that’s been years in the making.
Building on the success of a year-long pilot project, the Gulf Shores City Council is poised to pass an ordinance regulating food trucks Jan. 25. Ryan Shamburger, co-founder of Big Beach Brewing Company, calls the ordinance “a success story” after a five-year battle against opponents, including some of the state’s largest restaurants.
“It started when we opened the brewery after visiting many others and finding the partnership with food trucks was kind of a staple,” Shamburger said. “As soon as we broke ground we were talking to the mayor and the council, but we met a lot of speed bumps in 2015 and in 2017. Most of the concerns were from brick-and-mortar restaurants that were worried about competition.”
In 2019, Shamburger took a page from the statewide “Free the Hops” movement a decade earlier and promoted a grassroots movement called “Free the Food Trucks.” The city agreed to start a pilot program to gauge interest and measure success. After the results of a survey proved favorable late last year, the Planning Commission began working on a draft ordinance.
“For years it was not a permitted use on the city’s zoning ordinance, so we had to learn the system to amend the ordinance, and eventually we applied for it,” he said. “The idea that trucks would cut into the business of some of these large restaurants is kind of laughable, but many of them remained very opposed to the pilot program, but it carried on. Then the pandemic affected business. Since June there have been three public hearings on the ordinance and no one has shown up to speak in opposition.”
Gulf Shores Planning Director Andy Bauer said the proposed ordinance will allow food trucks to operate on commercially zoned properties that have an existing, operating business on the property. Hours of operation will be restricted to the hours of the business on the property and no food truck may operate on residential properties or city-owned properties.
“One change between the pilot program and the proposed ordinance is that any properties that have frontage on [State Route] 59 — instead of operating there by right — they have to obtain a conditional use permit that requires a public hearing before the Planning Commission and City Council,” Bauer said. “When we presented this to the City Council in late December or earlier this month, some of the council members worried about potential issues with traffic, aesthetics and pedestrians, so the conditional use on 59 gives the city a little more control.”
Application fees will cost $100 and vendors will be responsible for paying all applicable city taxes, Bauer added.
In addition, Shamburger said food trucks must follow state health department guidelines on kitchen equipment, food handling and the use of commissaries. He said the grassroots effort was especially well received by operators in Gulf Shores, where real estate prices can be prohibitive to opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“When we first opened, state law defined us as a manufacturer and we couldn’t have a kitchen, but now they have a definition of a ‘brew pub’ that allows it,” he said. “It’s still difficult. The main hurdle is the health department doesn’t want shared equipment between the kitchen and the brewing and it’s always been part of our philosophy that breweries shouldn’t have to flip tables. Plus, in terms of capital expenditure and real estate down here, it’s kind of a hurdle. To do the amount of business to justify those costs you have to flip tables and what we want is for people to come and stay as long as they want.”
Shamburger said food trucks are a happy medium.
“There will be folks who visit here or live here who decide not to go to dining rooms for a while, at least until the pandemic has passed,” he said. “Food trucks are an amazing option for us to get prepared food fast, and have a little social interaction. I think it’s a win-win. There was a lot of healthy debate and I think we’ve come to agree on something that will work for our community.”
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