'A no-brainer?' Food trucks at brewery pose challenge to selectmen

A little flexibility on food trucks, maybe?

The selectmen appear ready to accommodate a request to allow food trucks at the Nod Hill Brewery on Route 7.

“It seems to me it makes so much sense, there’s got to be a way to do this,” Selectwoman Barbara Manners said near the end of a lengthy discussion Nov. 8.

“It’s a no-brainer,” she said.

The selectmen didn’t vote on the question, however, deciding they’d seek a legal opinion and take the issue up again at their Nov. 29 meeting.

A year ago, in November 2016, a town meeting approved revisions to the town’s “vending and peddling” ordinance, more tightly regulating “mobile food vendors.” Roving operators, like ice cream trucks, are allowed, and vendors may sell at specific occasions where they’re invited, such as private parties or public events like outdoor concerts or the Fourth of July fireworks.

But the revised ordinance prohibits food trucks and vendor carts from parking and just setting up to do business in a given spot for more than 15 minutes — with specific exceptions carved out for the two long-established locations of Chez Lenard hot dogs on Main Street and The Zwack Shack lunch truck on Route 7.

The changes to the law, which the selectmen had labored long and hard on, were designed to protect the interests of “brick and mortar” businesses like restaurants that are part of the town’s commercial tax base.

‘A natural extension’

The request from Nod Hill Brewery owner Rob Kaye and his attorney, Bob Jewell, seemed different to the selectmen in that food trucks locating at Kaye’s property could be seen as an extension of the newly opened brewery’s commercial use — Nod Hill makes and serves beer, and Kaye wants patrons to be able to eat but doesn’t want the problems of operating a restaurant.

Allowing food trucks to set up at the brewery seemed a good solution.

“The food trucks are very much a part of the experience,” Kaye said. “It’s a natural extension.”

And the food trucks would be supporting the operations of a tax-paying brick-and-mortar business.

Kaye has a 32,000-square-foot building — it’s the former Norco industrial property — and the Nod Hill Brewery takes up about 3,000 square feet of the space there. His principal business, Riverside Fence, shares the location, and employs about 45 people, he said.

“I pay a lot of taxes. I have a 15-acre property,” Kaye told the selectmen.

The brewery, which is operated by his son, has been open about a month.

“We have over 1,000 people come in each weekend,” he said.

About 50% of people visiting the brewery are Ridgefield residents, Kaye said, and when he asked people from town to sign a petition in support of food trucks there, he didn’t get one person who was opposed.

In violation?

Still, there is the question of the town’s vendor law, which is designed to prevent food trucks from setting up shop as lower-cost competition to restaurants.

“I do feel, the way it’s being proposed, it is in violation of our ordinance,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi asked attorney Jewell if he thought the proposal was in keeping with the town’s vendor ordinance.

“I don’t think it violates the purpose and spirit of the ordinance,” Jewell said.

Selectman Bob Hebert agreed that the brewery’s request presented a different situation.

“It’s the brick-and-mortar property owner that’s asking us to allow food trucks,” Hebert said.

Attorney Jewell noted that restaurants are legal in the zone that governs Kaye’s property, which is off Route 7 a little north of Branchville, up behind the Riverbend Wood Floor Co. roadside building.

Kaye said his site was set back 100 feet from Route 7 — it’s on the other side of the Norwalk River. Food trucks there wouldn’t be just roadside vendors. They would complement the brewery, adding to its draw.

“These food trucks have followers. They post where they’re going to be,” Kaye said. “It’s located on beer websites and Facebook pages.”

Food trucks are an attraction, Kaye said.

“There are food truck festivals,” he said. “It’s a thing. It’s a progressive thing. Now it’s part of the culture.”

“There’s haute cuisine, now, from food trucks,” Manners agreed.

“This is wonderful exposure for the town,” Kaye said. “We are a destination.”

Marconi wanted to be careful, however. He suggested that he have town attorneys review the ordinance and the proposal.

“I’d really like legal to take a look at it,” Marconi said. “I think we’d be in dangerous territory where we violate our own ordinance.”