The food truck has become a backdrop of parts of the West Valley landscape, with mobile cooks peddling everything from street tacos to shaved ice.
The growth has been undeniable with approved permits to operate mobile food units, more commonly known as food trucks, increasing every year since fiscal year 2014, according to Maricopa County Environmental Services Department officials. This amounts to a nearly 250% increase since then.
Sun City residents and their guests — and non-residents who attend paid public events — began seeing the vehicles before that. Recreation Centers of Sun City officials began using gourmet food vendors in spring 2013, according to Joelyn Higgins, RCSC communications and marketing coordinator.
“We started this for more variety and offerings for cardholders at no additional expense to those not participating and providing a convenience to attendees and concessions at events,” she stated in an email.
The food vendors in Sun City offered everything from full-meal options to just snacks, like popcorn, ice cream and coffee, according to Ms. Higgins. Most, however, have provided such items as burgers, pizza, ice cream and kettle corn, she added.
Food truck owners are invited to participate and operate on what they sell during specific events.
“Vendors need to sell enough to make participating financially beneficial.” Ms. Higgins said. “If not, they likely will not return.”
RCSC officials monitor the success of each vendor to determine which ones are invited back.
“Depending upon customer tastes and demands, we might determine that some vendors are not suitable in the Sun City market,” Ms. Higgins stated.
Reaction has been mostly positive, according to Ms. Higgins.
“Cardholders have thoroughly enjoyed having this additional option at both the Sun Bowl concerts and some of the other RCSC events throughout the year,” she stated. “We intend to continue using them as long as there is demand.”
Recreation Centers of Sun City West officials also utilize food vendors for some of their events and operate in a similar manner, according to Katy O’Grady, RCSCW general services officer.
“But they aren’t the typical food truck set up,” she stated in an email. “We offer a contract with a vendor to come in and sell and take what they make.”
RCSCW officials also ask the vendor to feed volunteers at that specific event at no cost, she added.
“But otherwise, we bring them in to provide a service, not to make a profit for us,” Ms. O’Grady stated. “We don’t charge them and we don’t guarantee them any specific profits.”
Food trucks generally work by agreeing to come in if guaranteed a minimum amount of income. Sometimes, says Ms. O’Grady, the host can earn a share of the profits if the vendor makes more than a certain amount.
“We don’t guarantee minimums, so we don’t run our concessions this way,” she added.
Joe’s Tacos, a food truck located near Grand and Olive avenues, has been operating since 2016. Owner Joe Sanchez said he has experienced considerable growth since then, recently purchasing a bigger vehicle to keep up with the demand.
He said it’s not uncommon to have a 30-minute wait on Saturdays.
The new truck handles more food, while the smaller truck is being put to work at events and catering, he said.
City of Peoria officials are responding to the increase in food truck businesses by updating its regulations to comply with new state rules and to ensure its laws adequately address changing trends in use and the small business landscape, said Planning Manager Lorie Dever.
Legislation has changed over the last two years as to what regulations cities and counties can place on food trucks.
In May 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2371 into law, commonly known as the Food Truck Freedom bill. The bill amended Arizona law to establish a clear definition of a “mobile food unit,” and outline the scope of municipal powers to regulate mobile vending, and establish annual licensing requirements through the Arizona Department of Health.
Prior to the new state regulations, food trucks were subject to operating rules and licensing requirements that differed by locality.
Since the changes in legislation, the city has made an effort to work on updating the ordinance that addresses food trucks, Ms. Dever said.
“We have been streamlining processes and benchmarking across what other cities do,” Ms. Dever said. “There has been lot of coordination behind the scenes which is why it has taken a while.”
Ms. Dever did not respond to an inquiry about permit costs. Mobile food permits in Maricopa County are $610 per year for an approved application.
In the coming year, city staff is planning to bring updated regulations on food trucks before the city council. She said mobile vendors are increasingly prevalent and desired in commercial and employment areas.
Mobile vendors can provide needed services such as coffee, meals and event merchandise in a location and timeframe that is convenient for many patrons. The mobile vendor format is seen as a nimble business design conducive to start-up small businesses that are still determining market demands for their goods, Ms. Dever said.
“The proposed regulations are intended to maintain a high quality of life for residents without unduly restricting private enterprise or innovation in design, all while reducing hazards to the public, which might result from the inappropriate location, use or design of buildings or other uses,” Ms. Dever said.
But some food truck vendors wonder if new regulations will be beneficial to operating in Peoria — and if rising permit costs will scare some vendors away from Peoria.
Desmond Martin, owner of mobile business Happy Honu Shaved Ice, said his small business has been in operation and steadily growing for the last three years, all with absolutely zero regrets. He has, however, taken some of his business out of Peoria because obtaining a temporary use permit for frequent parking at specific locations is out of his price range.
He said there have been a small number of new trucks setting up within the city limits that do not adhere to the city’s temporary usage permit policies.
“I’ve personally asked one owner and he said he’s met with city employees to go over fees — which he also confirmed were high — and when he agreed to their terms, they ‘backed off,’ and haven’t reached out or visited him since,” Mr. Martin said.
Editor's Note: Peoria Independent News Editor Philip Haldiman co-wrote this story.