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Article updated: 8/2/2013 10:40 AM

Naperville to conduct survey about downtown food carts

By Marie Wilson

Mobile food cart vendors have been selling hot dogs and pulled pork in downtown Naperville since at least 2010, but now city officials want to ask the public if they should remain part of the scene.

The vendors say they fill a need for a quick bite along the Riverwalk or by the Chicago Avenue parking garage, but critics claim the carts may steal business from established restaurants.

"It's been a delicate balance," Katie Wood, executive director of Downtown Naperville Alliance, said about the mobile food cart program the city began three years ago. "We just want to make sure it's the best thing for the community and it doesn't get too carried away so brick-and-mortar restaurants aren't in jeopardy."

The $275 annual permits now held by two vendors -- Joe Hornbaker of Joey's Red Hots and John Singleton of John's Rib House -- recently were extended until Dec. 31.

When the city council agreed to the extension, staff members committed to review the program. The public survey is part of that review, city spokeswoman Linda LaCloche said.

Developed by the Downtown Advisory Commission, the survey will ask people if they like the food carts, if the presence of the carts motivated them to come downtown, and if they've ever changed their plans from eating at a restaurant because of the carts' on-the-go options, Wood said.

Hornbaker, who sells hot dogs and brats from his cart on Main Street just south of Jackson near the Riverwalk's horse trough fountain, said he hopes the program is allowed to continue.

"I don't think I really hurt anybody," Hornbaker said. "A lot of my customers have dogs and are walking with kids and strollers. It's just easier to stop by here."

He also hopes for more flexibility in the hours vendors are permitted to operate, which now are set for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and late-night nosh from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Looser time restrictions would help make up for time lost when he decides not to set up shop because of rain or excessive heat, Hornbaker said.

Reliability, however, is one of the issues Chris Finck said he has noticed since the mobile food vendors began operating. Finck, chairman of the Downtown Naperville Alliance board, said the vendors have not added to the vibrancy or festive atmosphere of the downtown, but they have created additional concerns about garbage and unfair competition.

"The biggest issue I'm most concerned about is they siphon off some business from the mom-and-pop restaurants," Finck said. "I don't think it's fair that they get optimal locations for the price of a permit when the other brick-and-mortar restaurants have to pay rent."

LaCloche said the survey will help gauge opinions from food cart customers and potential customers before the end of the year when the licenses expire.

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