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2 Tamales… Hold the Drama!

by on February 23rd, 2013

If you haven’t heard by now … there is a food cart operating in downtown Wausau!

We are J.W. & Karla Van Wagner, and we started Yo Chubby Gringo tamales in December 2012. We made our debut during the late night bar scene in downtown Wausau on Dec. 21st which was supposed to be the day the world ended. As you know it didn’t end and we have happily continued to provide Wausau’s downtown with one or two tamale cart appearances a week.

We just wanted to operate a tamale cart, but in order to do that, a certified kitchen was needed to prepare our tamales. Because of our fierce independence and determination to work only for ourselves, the idea of renting a kitchen was not an option so we built our business from the ground up. With a very limited start up budget, we decided to build our own mobile kitchen giving us the added benefit of vending from that as well. We started with a 61′ Mallard camper which we gutted and turned into a mobile kitchen. The windows are all original but the only original fixture inside the kitchen is a built-in shelf. We named it the “bitchin’ kitchen” because it is and there was. From learning how to solder pipes (and un-solder pipes and then re-solder pipes), installing completely new electrical and creating a kitchen that could pass the intensive health code inspection, we learned a lot! We also had to attend and pass a food manager program taught at NWTC that was required for our permits.

We then built a mobile hot food cart that had obstacles of its own including the metal logo sign, which didn’t arrive until Dec. 21st a few short hours before our maiden voyage.

During October and November we also designed our logo, menu and marketing strategies, designed our webpage and facebook page and began making connections with the local residents and businesses that we would soon also know as friends and patrons. We introduced many of them to their first tamale experience. We like to call these folks “tamale virgins” and advise them to untie the string (J.W. compares this to untying a bikini top as I roll my eyes) and not eat the husk (unless they have a lot of time and need the fiber). It is a constant stream of new faces, interesting characters, plenty of stories and the occasional “sloppy” gringos that appear late at night a little tipsy seeking solace in a tamale.

Little did we know last October when we began construction on our mobile food kitchen that we would be knee deep in politics four months later. What started out as an “as of now there are no restrictions on where or when we could operate our food cart,” has turned into a possible 8-page ordinance that leaves little room for our original plans to manifest. In our opinion this may put so many restrictions on anyone wanting to start up a food cart business in Wausau it could keep them from ever being successful or even wanting to attempt it.

There has been lots of support from everyone from businesses to private citizens to council members, and it is obvious this is something that would benefit the city of Wausau.

Our biggest concern is that no one knows that an ordinance is being drafted for an industry that barely exists. We would like to see the industry evolve for a while, and if and when there is more than, say — three vendors — operating in the downtown area, an ordinance could be created to facilitate the need.

One of the biggest mistakes we feel that is being written into the ordinance is that the vending carts will be stationary and not mobile. Having been the only food cart operating in Wausau for at least the last five years, mobility is the essence of the “mobile” food cart. To remain in one place robs the downtown atmosphere of the energy and excitement that food carts generate. Some of the research that has been done for this ordinance has stated that in other cities customers preferred the food carts to be located in the same spot so they can be found easier. Wausau does not have that big of a downtown area. So far if our customers can’t find us, they call us and ask us where we are or check our facebook page for our daily schedule. It’s not like we are a hospital or police station. No one is dying for a tamale or needing a tamale to stop a crime. If the customers can’t find us, the other downtown restaurants will happily feed them. We aren’t a brick & mortar restaurant, and, as such, there are no guarantees where or when we will be around. That is part of the fun: the hunt, the allure of food carts.

Other food carts may come that want to stay in one place and that should be their choice. Obviously staying a good distance from restaurants and obeying right-of-way laws is a given. There have been some accusations of us vending in front of restaurants, and that is untrue. We have never vended in front of a restaurant that was still serving food. We have never broken any laws at all with our food cart. We respect, promote and patronize the local businesses and want to help draw more shoppers and diners downtown to enjoy all of the things it has to offer.

Our other major concern is that the proposed ordinance will only allow vending on the 400 Block and only when no events are going on because some people feel it is unfair to the vendors that are paying to vend within the event. That is understandable when a huge event like the Wausau Festival of Arts is taking place that spans all the way from the Wausau Center Mall to the YMCA including the 400 Block. What we don’t agree with is the “no vending” during events that occur completely within the 400 Block itself. The park by definition runs from curb to curb. The sidewalk on the other side of the park is not part of the park as we all know because of the “no alcohol” rule that is enforced.

Event organizers have voiced their opinion that it isn’t fair to people that are paying to vend within the event, but the playing field really is leveled by the fact that the vendors that are not part of the event have “mobile food vending licenses” and most of the vendors paying to be part of the event have “temporary event food vending licenses.” Two completely different licenses. Temporary licensees are blanketed by the organization putting on the event. The vendors at these events are not always required to provide their own insurance, and their health code inspections are not as strict or as expensive as “mobile vending licenses.” “Mobile Food Vending Licensees” are businesses, and they supply their own insurances and must report to a base station. If a mobile food vendor wants to vend outside of this park boundary, they should be allowed. This is their business — not a hobby — and even though it isn’t a brick & mortar business, it is a viable business created by people that are not relying on the traditional job system but creating jobs for themselves and also bringing customers to downtown Wausau.

If city council was to approach the issue on a case by case basis and work with the vendor to create balance and harmony with all the businesses located downtown, we feel the food vending revolution will thrive in Wausau. If unnecessary restrictions are put in place for the benefit of a few without the consideration of the opinions of the many, an unnecessary drama will be created, keeping Wausau from its true potential for advancement.

“It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin

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