The city’s new street vending coordinator has heard the complaints from food cart operators and is ready to act.
“I’m very optimistic,” says Meghan Blake-Horst, who is taking on the position at a crucial time. She promises immediate changes in the food cart review process for 2017 and a review of key city ordinances that have been stifling the growth of Madison’s mobile food scene.
“There’s excitement for change and new opportunities with new people. I’m looking at growing opportunities [for carts], in places that have been resistant to it.”
The owner of Absolutely Art, an Atwood Avenue art gallery that closed in 2014, Blake-Horst, 41, has continued to facilitate art shows under the name of her former shop. She’s also the co-founder of the pop-up food- and craft-centered Mad City Bazaar. She started the vending coordinator job in December 2016 and formally took over the reins last week from retiring street vending coordinator Warren Hansen.
“Warren has built an amazing foundation,” says Blake-Horst. “I’m coming into what is a really great opportunity for growth.”
Hansen, who guided street vending since 1998, oversaw an explosion of interest in mobile food vending over the past decade. By the time the 2016 city cart review took place in early fall, there was increasing sentiment that the cart scene had outgrown the methods for regulating it, as more and more carts competed for coveted Mall/Concourse spots.
The immediate changes in the food cart review process for 2017 have yet to be decided; a small group of cart owners, reviewers and representatives from the city’s economic development staff met on Feb. 8 to discuss ideas for changing the review.
On the table: changing the maximum number of, or weighting of, seniority points; extending the review period for existing carts; having reviewers be anonymous (rather than showing a name tag identifying them as judges); simplifying the criteria by which reviewers judge carts; and mandating a training session for all reviewers. Also under discussion: ways to level the playing field for new carts. More meetings are planned.
A larger community focus group about the food carts, open to all, will be held Feb. 23, 6-8 p.m., at the Madison Public Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., room 301.
“We’re starting this now so we’ll have time to explain the changes,” says Blake-Horst. “Change is inherently challenging, and I don’t think we have the capacity to make massive changes all at one time. We’ll look at what to change first and build on that.”
Any changes to the cart review must be approved by the vending oversight committee as well as the Common Council.
Blake-Horst also hopes to work to allow vending on private property, which is currently against city ordinance; this could pave the way for semi-permanent food cart “pod” areas (like those that exist in Portland, Oregon). She’d also like to change the rules so that food trucks would be permissible. Both of these prohibitions have been “a huge barrier to the growth of our mobile food industry,” she says.
Other changes will take place sooner. Starting in April on opening day of the 2017 vending season, “there will be five new cart locations on the Square,” Blake-Horst confirms. That will bring the number of Square carts up to 25 from 20 and take five carts off the waiting list.
For the first time, carts will park in front of Grace Episcopal Church and the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, as well as in the gathering area at the top of State Street between 100 State Street and the office building 30 on the Square, where Mexican cart Marimar on Wheels was vending for a short time late last fall.
In addition, Blake-Horst will be managing temporary reassignment of carts due to construction to begin in April along South Carroll, East and West Main and South Pinckney streets — currently the heart of where Square carts park. Many of these carts will head to the 100 and 200 blocks of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. At the same time, a building’s worth of city employees have moved from the Madison Municipal Building to 30 on the Square this year, creating a “perfect storm” of new traffic for newly placed carts.
Blake-Horst would like to explore other “opportunity zones” around the city that have enough density to support food carts and food trucks, such as office parks.
“I’m excited to be able to implement this and see how it goes,” says Blake-Horst. “Every year will be different, and “every year [new changes] will have to be addressed.”