When Steve Liautaud looks at a vacant lot in the middle of downtown Biddeford, he imagines a vibrant mobile food court with string lights hanging overhead and music playing while diners eat meals served from local food trucks.

A proposal from the Kennebunk resident to transform the lot into a food court for food trucks and mobile food vendors has prompted city officials to review the city’s rules for food trucks, which were developed long ago for mobile canteen trucks that pulled up outside of the mills to feed workers.

The food court would be the first of its kind in Biddeford, but the concept has become more common across the country as food trucks have become more popular in recent years. Congdon’s After Dark – the only daily food truck park in New England – attracts thousands of visitors to Wells each summer. And food trucks are a popular attraction in Portland, where 40 food trucks and 13 pushcarts are licensed to operate this year and contribute to Portland’s reputation as a foodie destination.

In Biddeford, food trucks are occasionally in town for festivals or parked on private property, but are not a common sight throughout the city. A hot dog cart is a regular fixture outside of City Hall.

“I’m creating a whole experience around the food truck and taking away the imperfection of food truck dining,” Liautaud said. “I’m scaling it up to a level where you feel you’re walking into a great restaurant but you’re getting the whole outdoor food truck experience.”

Before Liautaud can move forward with the approval process for the food court, named City Side, the City Council would have to grant an easement to the site, which is only accessible through two city-owned parking spots. The property is at 64 Alfred St., the busy corner of Alfred and Pool streets, and has been vacant since the building that had been there was destroyed by fire on Nov. 25, 2006.

The property has been difficult to develop because of its layout, location and the backfill used to fill the foundation, according to city officials.

While city officials work on and consider the easement, the Downtown Development Commission will review ordinances related to food trucks more broadly at the request of the City Council. Biddeford’s current licensing and land use ordinances that apply to mobile food vendors require operators of food trucks and concession trailers to obtain a permit and inspection from the city each year and to hold a state health certificate. But there are some conflicts between the two ordinances that need to be ironed out, according to Mathew Eddy, the city’s planning and development director.

“The licensing ordinance goes back to the old days when they’d pull up mobile canteen trucks by the mills and people would come out to get their food,” he said. “The idea of a mobile food court is very different than what it was back then.”

Liautaud wants to tap into the energy and excitement around food trucks to create an enhanced experience for customers. If approved, the food court would feature a rotating lineup of six food trucks and carts situated around a central dining area. He would employ people to clean tables and serve local microbrews. His plans include restrooms on the corner lot.

Food truck operators would arrive each day and set up in a pod that would include power, water, gray water and oil dump. To meet Biddeford’s parking requirements for restaurants, City Side employees would park in spots Liautaud has secured at Paul’s Variety.

Dining at food trucks is “an exceptional experience that just needs to go a little bit farther” with amenities like tables, said Liautaud, who owned restaurants in Chicago and is now a broker specializing in investment properties. He worked in the restaurant industry for 30 years before moving to Maine and buying Harmon’s Clam Cakes, which he sold in 2019.

“Today’s food truck operators are formally trained chefs testing and developing cutting-edge concepts in well-designed kitchens on wheels. They are social media ninjas with loyal followings,” he said, noting that they can attract customers in a way that would help the city’s mission to improve its image and grow.

Liautaud said he was drawn to transforming the vacant lot into a food court because of its position in the middle of “a really cool town.”

“That location is super unique. It’s the gateway into Biddeford and I see it as the crown jewel,” he said.

Liautaud would like to operate the food court from May 1 to Halloween each year. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, he envisions the lot as a “Chris Kringle Christmas Village” with roasted chestnuts, beer and brats, Christmas tree sales and booths for artisans.

The proposal requires site plan review, but that process cannot begin until Liautaud can show there is access to the site. Because curb cuts are not a good option at that intersection, the only viable access is through two public parking spots that are currently used for free two-hour parking. Eddy said the project cannot move forward unless an easement is granted.

The City Council discussed the idea for the first time last week during a committee-of-the-whole discussion, when no public input is taken or votes made. Overall, city councilors seemed interested in the prospect of the mobile food court and food trucks generally, but raised some concerns about parking and the potential impact on brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Councilors supported having the Downtown Development Commission review ordinances related to food trucks.

City Manager James Bennett told the council that starting examining policies for food trucks would likely start some broader discussions about competition with traditional restaurants and the appropriate balance. But, he said, there will be people who encourage food trucks because they could increase the visibility of Biddeford as a place to go.

“As the community becomes more popular and more of a place people want to be, you’ll have more pressure because people want to have more food vendors in the community,” Bennett said. “I think this is the beginning of a discussion the community will want to have at some point in the near future.”

Councilor Marc Lessard said he favors the idea of considering allowing food trucks and carts at the site for a trial period, then reviewing rules again in case they need to be tweaked. He believes rules should be approached from a citywide standpoint instead of for one specific property or project.

Councilor William Emhiser said he believes a mobile food court could become a destination much like Congdon’s After Dark  in Wells. He said he spoke with a downtown restaurant owner about the idea last week.

“I’ll use his exact words: He said ‘I am stoked,'” Emhiser said.

Councilor Amy Clearwater, who supported sending the food truck issue to the DDC, said she has heard from people who have food trucks and are interested in coming to Biddeford. If they do well and develop a following, some could open restaurants in the city, she said.

“In my experience, they’re often an incubator space for someone who wants to have a brick-and-mortar spot,” she said.

The prospect of a mobile food court prompted talk at the Heart of Biddeford, a nonprofit organization that supports the downtown and local businesses. Executive Director Delilah Poupore said two of the organization’s committees have been discussing how the mobile food court could enhance the downtown and how to mitigate any potential negative impacts to brick-and-mortar restaurants. There are now 50 food businesses downtown and many take on a lot of debt to open and create a following downtown, she said.

While there is concern food trucks could take business away from brick-and-mortar restaurants, food trucks can also generate excitement and bring people to the city who would then come back to try other restaurants, Poupore said. One retail business owner who spoke with the Heart of Biddeford about the proposal said it could be a way to bring attention to the area, but another business owner said they’d experienced negative impacts from food trucks in the past, she said.

“There’s something really exciting about food trucks that make people come out and try them,” Poupore said.

Jackie Hardin is co-owner of Yeto’s restaurant and D&G, a new deli and gelato shop on Main Street, and serves on the Heart of Biddeford board. She believes developing updated and clear rules for food trucks is a “really good starting point.” She hopes the mobile food court would be set up so the space is well taken care of and food trucks are part of the community.

Hardin said food trucks and mobile food stations could be a “valuable asset to the city” at a time when it’s doing well with its revitalization.

“They bring in a lot of foot traffic, then people notice other things,” she said. “Getting people to spend more time downtown is always a great idea.”


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