That the explosion of microbreweries in the area has required changes in some towns’ zoning ordinances has been well documented. But plans by some businesses to offer their patrons something to eat have also faced municipal hurdles.
Call it food-truck phobia.
“Food trucks are part of the culture of going to breweries now,” said David Kaye, co-owner with his father Robert of Ridgefield’s Nod Hill Brewery at 137 Ethan Allen Highway. “A lot of them around the state host food trucks. They offer a variety of casual, good quality food, which enhances the experience of coming here.”
That may be so, but Nod Hill needed to work to win Ridgefield’s approval last month of an amendment to its 2016 rule forbidding breweries and wineries from featuring food trucks in one spot for more than 15 minutes. The Kayes needed to get a petition signed by more than 2 percent of registered voters to prove that it was an idea whose time had come.
At the subsequent public hearing, “A lot of residents spoke in favor of it, while some were still concerned about it,” David Kaye said. Kaye termed the approval “a pretty gratifying success.”
It wasn’t the first time that the Kayes needed a change in Ridgefield’s zoning laws. In February 2017, they were granted a zoning amendment to allow a brewery in their B-2 commercial zone, which previously allowed manufacturing but not brewing. Their food-truck request was made at nearly the same time that Nod Hill opened last October.
Kaye declined to describe either struggle as a “fight,” however. “There were concerns about traffic and competition with area restaurants, which we understood,” he said. “The town has been supportive of us. We just had to go through the processes in the correct way.” Food trucks could start operating on Saturdays by the end of August, he added.
Nod Hill’s efforts sounded familiar to Tess Szamatulski, co-owner with husband Mark of Veracious Brewing Co. at 246 Main St. in Monroe, which endured its own two-year struggle to get food trucks onto its site, culminating in approval last summer.
Food trucks were a relative rarity in Monroe and had to operate under the town’s peddlers’ license, which only allows for a mobile seller to be in one place for 10 minutes, after which it must relocate or, in Szamatulski’s words, “drive around the block and set up again for another 10 minutes.”
That it took Veracious two years to finally get that ordinance changed was something that did not work in its favor with food truck operators, Szamatulski said.
“When we opened three-plus years ago, we told them that we could have food trucks, and had several of them lined up,” she recounted. “Then we became kind of persona non grata when we told them that wasn’t the case.”
Food-truck operators in Monroe must pay an annual $150 fee to receive health inspector approval. With those trucks pretty much booked for the hot months, Veracious instead has been relying on local eateries like Monroe Social and Country Pizza to deliver, though Szamatulski noted that patrons are welcome to bring in their own food. She said she hoped to meet with food-truck owners in January to provide a steady schedule of choices beginning that month; Veracious is allowed to have two on-site at a time.
Veracious and Nod Hill got off relatively easy. Broken Bow Brewery in Tuckahoe, New York, which is celebrating its five-year anniversary Aug. 17-19, took about five years to get food-truck clearance from the town; this is its first year to offer the trucks.
“Tuckahoe is a very small village that had never allowed food trucks,” said Kristen Stone, founding partner and head of marketing. “They wanted to keep the focus on local restaurants, a lot of which have been here for a very long time. They were concerned about food trucks competing with them.”
After a lot of back-and-forth, including demonstrating the caliber of trucks Broken Bow was interested in working with, not like the broken-down dives-on-wheels that may find service elsewhere, approval was finally awarded. Because it’s limited to one truck at a time, Stone said that Broken Bow plans to have the two scheduled to be at its August anniversary event show up at different times.
Broken Bow originally invited local eateries to set up inside its space at 173 Marbledale Road to offer their wares to patrons but, Stone noted, weekend traffic at the restaurants themselves tended to work against those arrangements.
All of this begs the question: Why don’t such breweries simply do their own cooking?
“Generally, most brewery start-ups come from the beer side first,” said Paul Gatza, director of The Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association dedicated to small and independent brewers in the U.S., headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. “It is that passion that drives them to go pro. To offer your own food involves developing some expertise in that area.
“About 80 percent of the openings we see are in the taproom model,” Gatza added, “so not doing significant food service in-house is emerging as the dominant business model.”
The food-truck option gives the entrepreneur brewer a chance to stay focused on the beer and manage a leaner business through its start-up phase, he said, “but then they are leaving potential revenue to others who handle the food.”
“Oh God, no,” Szamatulski laughed when asked about Veracious cooking its own food. “Between running the brewery and Maltose Express (the Szamatulskis’ beer- and wine-making supply store next door), we’re really busy.
“We could probably fit a kitchen in here somewhere,” the former caterer allowed. “It would be nice to have pub food here, but it’s not worth the hassle with the health department right now.”
“For us and other microbreweries, it’s important that the focus remains on the beer itself,” Stone said. “Even on our koozies it says, ‘It’s all about the beer.’
“We know how to brew beer and we know how to eat food,” she quipped. “But in no way are any of us cooks.”
“I have limited interest in flipping burgers,” declared P. Scott Vallely, owner and brewmaster at Danbury’s Charter Oak Brewing, which officially opened last month at 39B Shelter Rock Road. “I’d rather focus on making the very best beer.”
While Vallely also had to navigate his city’s regulations to open Charter Oak, ultimately winning an amendment to a decades-old zoning rule, he didn’t face Danbury opposition to food trucks. Unfortunately, he said, he’s occasionally had other problems.
“Food trucks are so in vogue now that they can be hard to come by,” he said. “I had two Saturdays in a row where the truck didn’t show up because they got a better gig. If they can sell a few items here or have a guaranteed 40 or more meals at something like a wedding reception or a reunion, they’re going to go there. It’s understandable, but it can be a little frustrating.”
Gatza expressed surprise when told of Charter Oak’s troubles. “It seems like a strategy that burns bridges,” he remarked. “If a food truck doesn’t show for a commitment, they won’t be asked back. I would think word gets around and the reputation of that truck could take a hit.”
Bad Sons Beer Co. in Derby, while occasionally offering a food truck, prefers to work with local restaurants who deliver, according to Bill da Silva, who with his brother Mark opened at 251 Roosevelt Drive a little more than a year ago.
“We want to be adding to the neighborhood we’re in, which is very important to us,” da Silva said. “We’re not interested in competing with the restaurants, a lot of whom sell our beer. We also close early” — at 8 or 9 p.m. during the week and 10 p.m. on weekends — “with the idea that someone can come here and enjoy a beer before they head out to dinner. Maybe they see our beer at that restaurant and order another one. It works.”
Vallely takes the same approach. “We sell a lot of our beer to restaurants and bars,” he said, “so we don’t want those people to say that we look and smell like a restaurant.” Charter Oak tries to avoid direct competition by opening on Thursdays and Fridays — the only weekdays it’s open — after the lunch hour and closing by 8 p.m. on those days and Saturdays.
All of the operators noted that they’re licensed as “breweries,” not as “brewpubs,” the distinction being the operation of a kitchen and adhering to additional zoning and health department regulations. One of the newest brewpubs, M&D Brewery, is preparing to begin construction at Fairfield Hills in Newtown. Partner Mark Tambascio, one of the principals at nearby My Place Restaurant, plans to have both a pizza oven and food trucks on-site, alongside beer and other beverages.