Staff Columnist

Iowa City leaders defend late-night food

Patrons crowed around the Marco's Grilled Cheese cart Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 after bar close on the pedestrian mall in downtown in Iowa City. The food carts on the pedestrian mall do a booming business as bar goers stop to get a snack on their way home. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
Patrons crowed around the Marco's Grilled Cheese cart Friday, Sept. 11, 2009 after bar close on the pedestrian mall in downtown in Iowa City. The food carts on the pedestrian mall do a booming business as bar goers stop to get a snack on their way home. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Grilled cheese prevailed in Iowa City this week.

City staff members put forth a proposal to end licensing of downtown food carts, which have been around in some form since at least 1984. They said the space and personnel resources required for the program could be better used in other ways.

That rankled the men who operate three of the four currently licensed food carts, including Marco’s Grilled Cheese, considered by many a staple of Iowa City night life. Co-owner Pete Johnson said city administrators have “slowly but surely whittled it away on their own, and we can’t figure out why.”

A memo from the city manager’s office detailed several reasons for shuttering the carts. The program has overgrown the intent of spurring a more diverse set of vendors, they said, lamenting “food carts cater almost exclusively to late night bar patrons.”

The biggest supposed concern is public safety. When customers exit the bars at closing time, they congregate around the food carts, prolonging their evening festivities in the crowded Pedestrian Mall.

The city council did not buy it. While they did not make any firm commitments, members were highly skeptical of the staff’s case against food carts, a refreshing show of common sense for a council I have frequently criticized.

Council members questioned whether there is any data to show the food carts are responsible for late-night criminality. Staff acknowledged no such figures exist.

In perhaps my favorite moment in recent council history, council members even defended the rights of drunk Americans to exchange money for carbohydrates. It was enough to warm my cynical, libertarian heart.

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“As a health care provider, I think if someone has been drinking a lot of alcohol, you want them to eat,” said council member Pauline Taylor, a registered nurse.

Leaders questioned whether the city should restrict the food carts’ operation hours, or regulate their menus and hours as the city has done in the past. That, too, was met with skepticism. Johnson said the rush his carts get at bar close is crucial to their financial sustainability.

Rather than end the program, elected officials instead voiced support for expanding it. They want the city to come up with ways to support what they call microentrepreneurship, and collaborate with existing business incubation projects in the community.

For those who have never indulged in Iowa City’s bar culture, it may be hard to understand the significance of street food. The food carts are some of very few options for food downtown after 1 a.m., and more affordable than most restaurant alternatives.

There is a popular line of posters with artistic depictions of college bar scenes. You may have seen the “Pubs of Iowa City” version displayed in local bars. The Marco’s Grilled Cheese cart sits prominently in front of other well-known downtown institutions.

“I would anticipate there would be an outcry if the carts go away,” Mayor Jim Throgmorton said, also noting he wasn’t aware of any community members complaining about the food carts.

The mayor is right on this one. Long live the food carts.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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