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Editorial: Keep Northampton’s cuisine scene fresh

Woman with French fries and ketchup at food truck

Woman with French fries and ketchup at food truck Purchase photo reprints »

We are glad voices on the Northampton City Council are calling for a wider look at the role food trucks might play in the culinary scene downtown. What started this year as a simple review of what’s allowable should explore how mobile food vendors can add to the center’s vibrancy.

The first order of business, completed by the council last week, was to clarify what permits are needed and where food cart operators set up. Wherever they find customers, it is critical vendors be held to the same sanitary and food storage standards as all restaurants.

But as the council rolled the regulations into a single ordinance, some members questioned whether existing restrictions made sense.

The council’s president, William H. Dwight, said he was “a little squeamish” about forcing food trucks to operate only outside of the Central Business District. He suggested officials join with members of the business community to explore ways to host food carts downtown, perhaps in a designated area. Mayor David Narkewicz agreed a conversation about food trucks makes sense. Amherst went through a similar debate after several food trucks arrived on the scene.

Experimentation by artists, shopkeepers and restaurateurs helped revive Northampton’s downtown, a mill town in decline, 40 years ago. People came to be surprised by what was happening.

Today, established restaurants may see food trucks as rivals able to operate more cheaply. That’s understandable, especially when running a restaurant profitably is hard work — even for seasoned veterans, and in a destination city.

Food vendors no doubt compete with restaurants for customers, but it is possible that having more choices about where and what to eat will bring new diners downtown. These additional people may decide, now and then, to gather with friends at a local restaurant instead of eating on the go. Some also note that nationally, food vendors often go on, after testing recipes and developing a clientele, to found bricks-and-mortar restaurants.

At the council meeting last week, Dwight suggested the city consider finding a place where vendors can gather. The Tuesday farmers market is making great use of the area behind Thornes Marketplace. The same people who enjoy the shopping choices and community there are likely to patronize a gathering of food carts.

A citizen who attended the council meeting suggested using the area in front of Pulaski Park. Existing restaurants could consider setting up a cart of their own to get into this game. If it adjusts regulations to allow food trucks downtown, the city can still set rules that keep the scale appropriate for the location chosen. Rules could help existing businesses — as they already do by barring food trucks in the Central Business District — by limiting how close a truck selling pizza slices, for example, could park near a pizza restaurant.

As this conversation gets going, it’s worth remembering that customers decide which business enterprises work and which do not. Their views should be gathered and considered along with those of downtown restaurant owners.

In our opinion, Northampton should embrace a spirit of entrepreneurship and experimentation. That’s what got it all going.

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