Rain-or-shine resturants

Owners of Juneau food carts work despite rain and regulations

Posted: Tuesday, July 10, 2001

It may look like a rolling picnic, but owning a mobile food cart in Juneau is not all fun and games.

Along with being at the whim of the weather, location and foot traffic, food cart owners have to comply with strict state and city regulations.

"Mobile food units need to be annually permitted, so each year they need to fill out an application, provide us with complete plans and meet several regulations," said Spencer Waitman, an environmental health officer with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "Then we periodically spot-check the operation for food safety and sanitation and do a formal inspection once a year."

"The primary thing that is required for mobile food units is a continuous hot and cold water so the operator can wash his or her hands before handling food," Waitman said. "Plus, they need to be associated with an approved commissary (a kitchen facility)."

Once approved and licensed by the state, Juneau's mobile food cart owners then turn to the city to receive a permanent location.

"We have identified locations for food cart vendors and we assign them on a first-come, first-serve basis on an annual basis," said Beth McEwen, the city of Juneau's deputy clerk.

"If they have already been licensed and apply before the end of the current year, they have grandfather rights at their current location and can stay there for the next year," said McEwen. "Although we work on an annual basis, the majority of our vendors operate during the summer season."

Despite having to go through the annual process, Trish Austin's business - Downtown Espresso and Juice Bar - appears to be a permanent fixture on Front Street. Tucked under the Marine View Building's awning for the past eight summers, Austin operates her business out of a space that includes two large carts, four refrigerators, two hot dog machines, an espresso machine and a juicer.

"Business is better than last year so far," said Austin, as she made a cappuccino for a tourist who slipped under the awning to get out of the rain last week. "It's great. I see the locals in the morning, tourists in the afternoon and lots of crew members."

"Some of the crew members have been regular customers for the past eight years and it's pretty much the same locals coming by every morning," said Austin, who keeps her cart open seven days a week. "I'm real happy with this location."

While Austin sees a lot of tourists on a daily basis, Eric Lybarger - owner of Nefi's Grill situated around the corner from Downtown Espresso on Ferry Way and Egan - caters almost exclusively to locals.

"It's pretty much the same people every day," said Lybarger, who built his own cart. "Business is all right, not terrific, but all right."

Unlike Austin who is protected from the weather, Lybarger is exposed to the elements and staffs his corner on weekdays when it is not pouring and occasionally when the bars close, he said. On sunny days, his cart can get pretty busy so he encourages his customers to call in their lunch orders to his cell phone.

"I've been a cook for awhile but this is my first year doing this," said Lybarger, whose menu includes halibut, salmon, Italian sausage and lamb and chicken kabobs. "It seemed like a good thing to do for the summer. I can make my own money and not have to work for anybody else."

Across the street in Marine Park, Scott Ulery's Wild Fish Grill also is in its first season and attracting mostly locals.

"I sell maybe three items a day to tourists - a couple of sodas and maybe a polish dog," said Ulery, a former fisherman who sells primarily fish items.

"It's pretty much all locals, which is fine because I feel like I'm supporting small family fishers by buying directly and selling to locals. It's pretty much the same crowd at lunch and the same families that come by on nice nights," Ulery said.

"I thought Marine Park would be a better location for both tourists and locals," he added. "It turns out that locals working downtown may not get down to Marine Park during lunch."

Within the next few weeks, Ulery plans to move his mobile food cart adjacent to the Alaskan Hotel & Bar and stay open from around noon until the bar closes, he said.

"Earlier in the summer, even on rainy days, it was pretty good (in the park)," Ulery said. "But as the wind starts blowing, it gets tough out there."

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