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Glens Falls’ food truck corrals face an uncertain future

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GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – For years, a visit to Lawrence Street on a spring, summer or fall Thursday has been a special thing. Cars line the street and locals flock by the sidewalk, all headed to the Glens Falls Shirt Factory. Their common destination would be the venue’s weekly food truck corral, a seasonal event that has formed its own loyal community.

After surviving the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and bouncing back with new strength, it’s this coming year that may be the most uncertain for the event. In 2022, the Shirt Factory welcomes as many as 60 vendors to set up shop across four parts of its outside property, surrounding a four-story building that over 100 shops and artists call home. Last week, building owner Eric Unkauf announced in a Facebook post that things had changed.

“Normally by this time of year, we would have our event dates set and applications out to vendors,” the post starts off. “But when (a reporter from the Glens Falls Chronicle newspaper) called last week to get dates, we had to let her know we honestly could not say our events would happen this year.”

Since 2019, the Shirt Factory has had an agreement with the city to pay a flat $1,000 annually, rather than have the food trucks and restaurants that vend at the corrals pay the city for individual fees. That agreement was made under a different administration, led by then-mayor Dan Hall. Now, the administration has changed, and questions are surfacing that have Unkauf worried.

Current mayor Bill Collins, now a year into his own term, learned of the details of the agreement in recent months. Like any other year, 2022 had its own calendar of around 20 food truck Thursdays, as well as some other special events at the Shirt Factory that came with a similar footprint. The current administration came to Unkauf with the goal of gathering a better understanding of what goes into the event.

“We noticed in December that Eric hadn’t paid his fee for 2022, so we made contact asking for his fee – and said, ‘By the way, we need more details for your events,’” said Collins. “How many vendors are you having? Do we have all of the dates?”

That inquiry spawned a discovery for the city. The existing city code calls for individual vendor permits for everyone who comes to sell sandwiches, cold drinks, or anything else. Those permits may vary in cost depending on whether a vendor is in a truck or not – but the bottom line is that proper enforcement of permit code could generate anywhere between $14K and $17K in a given year. On the flipside, Unkauf says that enforcement would lose him most of the vendors who make the event what it is.

Meals on (or by way of) wheels

The city’s proposal is to begin charging vendors at the food truck corral for individual permits to be there. City permits cover six months of vending. Collins has voiced willingness to make adjustments based on what’s reasonable, but Unkauf – who has sent the city several emails with different details over recent weeks – has not gotten as much response as he would like. With corrals set to start in March, he and his family are at a standstill with the planning they typically pour into the events – because nobody is sure who will be able to afford to come.

“I need some sort of number. I need to know it’s going to be X dollars,” Unkauf said. “(The city of Glens Falls) said, ‘Eric, you don’t understand, we’re not asking you to personally pay this – we’re asking the vendors.’ I’m saying no, I’ll have to, because the vendors aren’t going to want to pay this.”

Unkauf says that the city floated $500 as a sample number for what individual vendors may have to pay for a 6-month permit. He brought that number to the attention of the vendors who visit his events – some of whom come in trucks, while others set up tables and tents.

About 90% of food truck operators indicated that they would rather not pay the fee, but would deal with it if needed. Most of those who said no are those coming from the greatest distances to reach Glens Falls – over an hour in some cases. Meanwhile, out of the table-and-tent vendors – which make up the majority of the vendors – only a single one said they could endure the fee. To Unkauf, that comes as no surprise.

“Some of these (truckless) vendors get up at 4 a.m. and start cooking,” Unkauf laid out. “They truck as much as an hour and a half to get to the event, serve all day, and then by the time they get home and get cleaned up, it’s around midnight. Even if they’re paying themselves minimum wage, what are they making at the end of the day? There’s not a lot of margins left.”

Unkauf also points out that many of the non-truck food vendors at his corrals make up an ethnically-diverse side of the weekly offerings that he wants to keep. While trucks serve up favorites like pizza, burgers and donuts, it’s the tables where you’ll find Caribbean cuisine, falafel and other atypical offerings. In lieu of losing half or more of his 60-ish regulars, Unkauf feels that he would have to take a fee that big on himself – which would likely call for community fundraising.

What the fees are for

The city isn’t asking for the Shirt Factory to retroactively pay anything more than the agreement states in regards to the 2022 corrals. When looking to 2023, Mayor Collins is focused less on the exact amount of money vendors are charged, and more on understanding how much traffic is flowing in the city’s eastern end on a Thursday night. He praised how self-sufficient the corrals have been, never requiring the city to step in and close down a street – or interfere in just about any way.

“We, the city, can’t be worried about making money on each event,” Collins said. “These do make money, though, and generate sales tax. I want to know how we can support that growth.”

Unkauf alleges that a $1.6 million shortfall in 2022 city revenue is driving the conversation, but Collins denies that making up for losses has anything to do with it. According to the mayor, collecting the permit fees would be no different from parking tickets or marriage licenses. All of those fees are collected by the city clerk’s office.

Unkauf doesn’t know how long he can wait to know if 2023 will see his property full of vendors again. The first food truck event of the year is set for March. Given too long to wait, he knows that many vendors will simply seek other gigs. Some do vend elsewhere in Glens Falls, and have permits with the city already. All have connections in places that may offer more lucrative opportunities.

“I don’t need to buy these trucks a permit for the whole city, just for 20 dates a year on my property, four hours a week,” Unkauf said. “I think the city has this thought of, ‘If (the vendors) have a city permit, they’ll come to all sorts of events.’ I can assure you, most of them won’t come to more events than they already do.”

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