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Food truck owners weigh city’s proposal

The setting Wednesday was festive — like an old-fashioned parish fair — at Holy Trinity Catholic School’s fortnightly food truck fundraiser in the St. Rose of Lima church parking lot along Sixth Avenue in Eldorado.

Doug Rhodes of Doug’s Dogs was one of a dozen vendors, enjoying his interactions with customers.

Rhodes isn’t worried about City Council’s recent talks about regulating food trucks, which have proliferated in Altoona since the closure of restaurants due to COVID-19, but he thinks the regulation is probably unnecessary.

Julie Johnson of the Ice House Cafe food truck is more definitive.

“I don’t see the need,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a little bit of government overreach.”

Holy Trinity requires liability insurance and a state Department of Agriculture food safety certificate, but otherwise, vendors “self-regulate” within the context of Holy Trinity’s management, said Alicia Lombardo, president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization and food truck event coordinator.

The city’s proposed regulations are likely in flux, but according to an initial ordinance draft, prohibitions — which might not apply to ice cream or water ice trucks — could include: operating during certain hours; operating within 50 feet of a residential building and 500 feet of a restaurant; parking at an

operating location overnight or with no one in attendance; and operating on

private property.

Council members have expressed a variety of concerns.

Time restrictions, restrictions on proximity to restaurants and the prohibition on operating on private property ought to be eliminated, according to Councilman Joe Carper.

The restaurant restriction would eliminate Heritage Plaza events for vendors, council members observed.

The private property restriction would eliminate — presumably — the events at St. Rose, along with food trucks at regular parish festivals, arts festivals and wedding receptions.

“I don’t want to mess up St. Rose,” said Councilman Dave Butterbaugh. “My concern is the law of unintended consequences.”

His own daughter had a food truck at her wedding reception, Butterbaugh added.

Council isn’t likely to take action on the matter in the immediate future, said Codes and Inspections Director Rebecca Brown.

A limitation on proximity to restaurants “makes sense,” Rhodes said.

But he and most other vendors are already “respectful” of restaurants and wouldn’t station themselves close enough to compete, he said.

“Do unto others,” he said.

Conversely, food trucks near a restaurant might actually help the restaurant, especially if the truck had offerings that complemented those of the restaurant, he said.

After all, many restaurants are especially successful in areas where they are near one another, as in the South Side of Pittsburgh, he said.

“Food brings food,” he said.

Rhodes and most other vendors don’t want to set up in residential neighborhoods, if for no other reason than the need for a “heavy concentration of people” — as generally found around businesses, Rhodes said.

He wouldn’t mind the city checking for the required food safety certificates — although he wouldn’t like to have to pay a fee for that, he said.

Regulatory action by the city would cut down on the “freedom to just show up anywhere” that she currently appreciates, said Johnson, who lives in Clearfield County and who has a full-time job apart from her food truck.

Adding city regulations to the “hoops” operators must already negotiate could cut into what she understands is the slim profit margin they maintain of about 5 percent, Lombardo said.

It could “destroy their business model,” she said.

“There are a lot of tentacles to this,” Rhodes said.

“I hope there’s not anything too restricting,” said Matt Halerz, a customer at Wednesday’s event, of the proposed regulations.

Safe, fun venue

Holy Trinity started the food truck event last July as a safe, weekly alternative to fundraisers that COVID-19 had eliminated, according to Lombardo

It ran every week until October.

Between 300 and 400 people would often come, Lombardo said.

This year, the school has been holding the event every two weeks.

There has been a parallel event at St. Mary’s in Altoona on the off-weeks.

The food has been good and the vendors never leave trash, said Cathy Damiano, the principal at Holy Trinity Elementary.

“It’s been awesome,” Damiano said.

Lombardo started by contacting Rhodes, a friend.

After that, there was “a domino effect,” she said.

He and Lombardo used to work together at the Mishler Theatre, Rhodes said.

He was a music director for shows — he’s a classical pianist — and she was a choreographer, he said.

The regularity and predictability of the events at St. Rose has been a boon to him, because he knows what to buy and how to manage — although weather can be a problem, Rhodes said.

“This is pretty hard to beat,” he said, as he scraped his grill around closing time Wednesday.

While he can connect with people through music, he has also been able to connect with them through his food truck business, often coming around to give customers “Doug hugs,” he said.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a stop to those, he added.

Now he has to do it “with words,” he said.

Johnson takes her truck to car shows and other one-day events.

“I have a passion for doing festivals and stuff,” she said. “I like the energy and the people — meeting new people, talking to people, providing a service that makes people happy.”

‘Community outreach’

Halerz and Lindsay French went to St. Rose Wednesday with their 1-year-old daughter, Nolan.

“Something to do to get out,” Halerz said. It made for a “nice, calm afternoon,” he said.

Joel Bobetich and his family — plus his parents — were tailgating.

That meant not having to make a meal, plus a chance to “hang out,” said Bobetich, who went to school at St. Rose years ago.

Michael Thomas and Heather Dosh, who’ve been best friends since they were children 28 years ago, were part of a group of about a dozen.

Thomas got some of Julie Johnson’s shaved ice.

“Cool in the summer,” Dosh said.

It’s not only a fundraiser, but “community outreach,” Damiano said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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