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As food carts vanish, Peoria weighs opening up downtown to more food trucks

LeMasters at work in Grill Em All Truck.jpg
Collin Schopp
Stephen LeMasters works in the Grill 'Em All food truck during an event at the Morton Auto Auction.

After no street food carts took up the City of Peoria's offer for a fee-free application this year, the council is considering loosening the restrictions on food trucks downtown. Some downtown businesses are less than excited about the prospect.

Lunchtime on the block surrounding the Peoria County Courthouse is a much quieter affair now than it was just a few short years ago. Around a dozen food carts used to sell meals to hungry bankers, receptionists and court clerks, but during the COVID pandemic, those carts disappeared.

Tony Haddad and his family, owners of Haddad’s Restaurant on West Main Street, had operated one of those carts for decades; after COVID, they invested in a food truck.

Haddad's Restaurant West Main Street.jpg
Collin Schopp
Tony Haddad and his family own and operate this restaurant on West Main Street, but wanted to expand into a food truck when COVID radically changed indoor dining conditions.

“That’s our new business model, we’ll probably never end up doing a pop-up push cart again,” said Haddad. “Because that’s a lot of work. Also we have a huge investment.”

So far, the new food truck has mostly seen action at businesses and at private events. Haddad said the business regularly does events in Bloomington-Normal and East Peoria, driving with a radius of about an 1 1/2 hours. But he sees opportunity in the downtown area, especially after the roughly 500 workers brought in by the new OSF headquarters earlier this year.

New OSF Healthcare Building.jpg
Collin Schopp
This new OSF Healthcare Headquarters in Downtown Peoria brought in an estimated 500 employees.

“So when people look out the window they’re like, 'Oh, there’s food, let’s go eat,’” he said. “Not only are they coming to patronize us, but they’re also going to see some of the restaurants and businesses outside and nearby.”

In Haddad's view, all competition is good competition in the downtown area, adding it's also a way to preserve some of the culture lost with the absence of the push carts.

“If you go to any major city, that’s what you’ll see, you’ll see rows of food trucks,” he said. “You’ll see them randomly on street corners. That’s what we need to get to in Peoria because that’s the nature of food trucks.”

Other food truck owners, like Stephen LeMasters of Grill ‘Em All, agree with Haddad.

“It’s going to Chicago, it’s going to a bigger city and being downtown and just seeing trucks set up any part of, any time of day,” said LeMasters. “To me, that’s attractive to me when I go up to the city and see a car on the side of the road. I’m walking up to it and getting some food, you know what I mean?”

LeMasters also typically works private events and businesses. The Grill ‘Em All food truck has done a lot of traveling since he got into the business earlier this year.

Grill Em All at Morton Auto Auction.jpg
Collin Schopp
Hungry auction-goers gather around the Grill 'Em All food truck at the Morton Auto Auction.

“We’re going to events, we’re going to OSF, we’re going to the cancer center, you know. Bars, private events, things like that,” he said. “Once you get out there and people see you out there, you know, you’re going to get some work.”

LeMasters had planned on applying to operate in downtown Peoria before job requests started to flow in. As Haddad points out, it's just not worth it to them under the current rules.

“Currently, I think there’s only, there’s two spots downtown that you’re allowed to park them,” said Haddad. “I’m not 100% sure, but they’re not convenient.”

But both LeMasters and Haddad said they would keep their private event jobs and downtown Peoria wouldn’t be an everyday location for their trucks. Also, not every food truck in the area would join in.

Kristie Doerr, owner of the Owl’s Nest in West Peoria, recently purchased a food truck of her own.

Owl's Nest West Peoria.jpg
Collin Schopp
The Owl's Nest in West Peoria recently expanded into a food truck, but owner Kristie Doerr says she doesn't plan on looking into operating downtown.

“I just feel Peoria is not very business friendly,” said Doerr. “It seems like everything they want to charge a fee or something added, to make it harder for a business. So, I just, I don’t want to jump through all their hoops.”

However, such reassurances don't help much for Pat Sullivan, owner of Kelleher's Irish Pub and Eatery on Water Street. Sullivan said he was part of the process years ago that determined the two spots food trucks can currently set up.

Kelleher's Irish Pub and Eatery on Water Street.jpg
Collin Schopp
Kelleher's Irish Pub and Eatery on Water Street is owned by Pat Sullivan, who is worried what food trucks coming to downtown could mean for customer counts that are still recovering from the pandemic.

“Was it desirable? I don’t know,” he said. “Get a brick and mortar and pay taxes and pay heat, pay air, pay all the stuff we have to pay maintenance on. To us, it was a very tough decision to even say yes.”

While food trucks don't pay all the same fees as a brick and mortar restaurant, owners like Haddad point out that operating a food truck isn't cheap, either.

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking because you’re setting this up and you can move things around in it, but you’re going to have to start spending a lot more money. It’s a big investment,” he said. “That was something we had to just risk because we knew indoor dining might never be the same.”

Another part of Sullivan's concern stems from the same pandemic that drove away the food carts in the first place. Like any restaurant, the coronavirus was difficult for his business.

“We had a pretty good sized staff of about 30 employees, with about three managers on top of that,” said Sullivan. “We’re down to 20 still and that’s a lot, or 18.”

Part of the reason Sullivan said staff remains lower is that the numbers on an average day in downtown Peoria now look nothing like they did pre-COVID.

"There used to be 20,000 people working in the downtown area. That’s done by polls they’ve taken earlier, four, five years ago,” he said. At a recent restaurant meeting, Sullivan said they estimated that, generously, 5,000 people are working downtown today.

“So that tells you,” he said. “How far we’re down down here.”

Unless there's a rise in foot traffic along with the addition of food trucks, Sullivan is worried what it could mean for him and the other restaurants.

“If they bring those trucks in, it will be right down the street here, one on each end,” he said. “And guess what? We won’t have enough people coming in here to keep the lights on during the day.”

Recently, the Peoria City Council discussed taking a second look at the food truck restrictions, with some members voicing support for loosening them. Fourth District Council member Andre Allen is one of those supporters.

“We gotta create vibrancy downtown. That’s what we have to do,” he said. “You have conversations around possibly bringing Amtrak to Peoria, things of that nature. So we have to have the infrastructure.”

The city council hasn't taken any action yet and Allen is aware of concerns from the restaurants.

“I’m very sensitive to our brick and mortar owners downtown because they weathered the storm. And some didn’t, some didn’t make it through the pandemic. It’s unfortunate. And some did, which is great,” he said. “So, I think we just have to have the right strategy.”

The right strategy, he said, would keep food trucks from "bombarding downtown," maybe through a lottery process, quotas, or specific days of operation.

Some food trucks and restaurants contacted for this story declined an interview, as they are actively involved in meetings to try to find the right strategy and don't want to speak out of turn.

Haddad also has been active in trying to develop new rules and says he met with City Manager Patrick Urich months ago.

“It’s really easy for a city council to go out there and pass something, but it might not be effective for people,” said Haddad. “So it’s really good they met with us to find out what are the needs. What do food trucks require and go from there. That was really good.”

Whatever decision is ultimately reached, all of the owners said they want the same thing: for downtown Peoria to continue to grow. Kelleher’s has been around long enough for Sullivan to remember what that growth looked like.

“I remember the restaurants and bars down on Main Street, they were open,” he said. “We had about six or eight more than we do now. And it hurts, it hurts.”

The owners interviewed also agree the food carts probably aren't coming back, so it remains to be seen if some balance of food trucks and restaurants make lunch an event in downtown Peoria again.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.