by Joshua Maloni
With more than 15,000 food trucks rolling across America, it's only a matter of time before one makes its way to Lewiston - a 2012 top food finalist in the Rand McNally/USA Today "Best of the Road" competition.
One candidate is The Black Market Food Truck, a gourmet deli sandwich unit co-owned and operated by Lewiston native Christian Willmott.
On Monday, he addressed village trustees. Willmott, who called himself an "ambassador for food trucks," told board members these traveling kitchens can bolster the local economy - and help restaurants succeed.
"There's evidence to support the fact that food trucks do bring more people to certain areas," Willmott said. "They do help promote business; they help promote foot traffic."
Willmott said Lewiston is an ideal location for a food truck because of the accolades village eateries have received.
"I think with Lewiston being more and more of a destination spot - every year it's becoming bigger and bigger and more well known - I think it's inevitable that we're going to want to move down here," he said.
Willmott informed trustees of the difficulties he and other owners have encountered in Buffalo. He said food trucks in Buffalo pay twice as much in fees as they would in other cities, and cannot park within 100 feet of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
He said food truckers don't want to be hassled or become a hassle. As such, "Our plan, going forward, is to approach towns that we'd like to do business in beforehand, so that we don't just show up one day. And then it becomes an issue for you, as well. You guys don't want to be receiving those phone calls, I'm sure," Willmott said.
The Village of Lewiston doesn't have any regulations in its municipal code that would prohibit Willmott or other food truck owners from operating. That said, trustees do have some concerns.
Mayor Terry Collesano said, "The last thing I'd like to see in the village is a honky-tonk atmosphere. We like to see classy things."
Willmott told him The Black Market Food Truck is a self-contained, refurbished 1968 fire truck.
Trustee Vic Eydt said he worries food trucks would interfere with existing restaurants looking to utilize outdoor spaces and establish individual identities.
Willmott said food trucks provide diners "something different" while not detracting from traditional eateries.
"If I'm going to go to a restaurant, I'm not going to walk by a food truck on the way to that restaurant and say, 'You know what, I'd rather just grab a sandwich.' I'm going to the restaurant for a reason," he said. "There are enough people down here. You just have to draw them out."
Deputy Mayor Bruce Sutherland said the village is losing late-night customers. When the bars close, he said, hungry patrons are driving to such places as Mighty Taco in Niagara Falls. Sutherland said that's not the safest choice, nor does it help the local economy.
Willmott said his operation would encourage locals to stay in town and spend money on food.
"We have been dealing with my truck, specifically, three separate restaurants that we go to," he explained. "It's a little different because we go there when the restaurant actually closes. I think there's a little bit more of a late-night crowd up in Buffalo than down here. But, we show up when they close. We keep their bar patrons there. We obviously get a fair amount of business from them, as well. And it really does work well.
"We've actually been parking in front of another sandwich shop. We serve mostly sandwiches - we're more of a deli truck. We serve out in front of their shop when they're open for lunch. They've actually seen an increase in business with us being there, as opposed to a decrease."
As to the question of where a food truck could be situated, Center Street is likely out. Sutherland said Water Street "would be hard," too.
Trustees batted around the idea of a food truck operating alongside Academy Park - in front of the Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce - after business hours.
Willmott said Lewiston's physical size and population would likely prevent a fleet of food trucks from descending on the village, so parking one or two shouldn't be a problem.
With regard to when food trucks would operate, Willmott suggested they would be open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays - Artpark concert nights - and perhaps during festivals. He said that's the most sought-after time, because there's a captive audience.
Sutherland warned him those are busy times in the village.
"The problem on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights is traffic," he said. "You couldn't impede the flow of traffic."
Willmott said The Black Market Food Truck typically serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., dinner from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and late-night fare from 11:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. In Lewiston, he figured his truck could occupy one of those slots, but not all three.
He didn't indicate a preferred time.
Now, while Willmott works with a trio of restaurants in Buffalo, he said he wouldn't necessarily need a partner in Lewiston. He is hopeful to build connections, though.
"We could serve lunch. We don't necessarily need to work in conjunction with a restaurant. We could do a dinner service, as well," Willmott said. "(But) the biggest thing is that we want to ... build up a relationship with the people that are doing business in this town - and any small town we go to. And other than that, it does help us to have an established restaurant that has a customer base that's going to be there anyways."
The Village Board took no action on the food truck idea.
Willmott said food trucks are subject to both rigorous health and vehicle inspections. A recent CNN.com article suggested food trucks are generally safe, and offered tips on what customers should look for before spending money on a meal.
•Also at Monday's Village Board meeting, trustees voted to renew a special use permit allowing the Niagara Sunday Fliers use of the Lewiston plateau this summer for electric-only model airplanes and helicopters. The group is not permitted to operate on the plateau during Artpark Tuesday and Wednesday concert nights.