The West Hartford Town Council unanimously approved an amendment to the Food Truck ordinance Tuesday night, changing the parking requirement and allowing beer and wine to be served, and paving the way for Gastro Park to apply for its special use permit and open for business.
By Ronni Newton
Beginning this fall, the West Hartford community should be able to enjoy a completely new dining experience with the long-awaited opening of Gastro Park – the food truck park planned for the New Park Avenue corridor.
Three years after developing the initial concept, and two years after obtaining approval of West Hartford’s initial Food Truck ordinance and purchasing the 637 New Park Ave. property, Tate Norden’s dream of opening a food truck park is finally close to reality following the Town Council’s unanimous approval of two changes to the ordinance.
“My goal is to open the park sometime in the fall,” said Norden, a West Hartford resident who launched the popular Iron & Grain food truck in an iconic Chevy Viking in 2015.
Norden said he intends to apply to the Town Plan and Zoning Commission for a special use permit as soon as possible, and hopes to have that in place by early to mid August, paving the way for an opening in the fall of the first phase, the exterior space, with renovation work on the interior of the building on the site completed in time for the onset of colder weather.
“The concept that we are tapping into is nothing new but it is new for Connecticut standards,” Norden told the Town Council at a public hearing in advance of the vote.
At the food truck party, diners will get the same level of quality they get in other restaurants in town – but instead of coming from a “kitchen bolted into the ground,” it will come from a kitchen on wheels. There will also be the added experience of multiple types of high quality food all in one place, plus the opportunity to sit around a fire pit, or play outdoor games like corn hole or bocce.
More importantly, allowing a food truck park to open in town is “about empowering small business growth,” Norden said.
With costs rising and barriers to entry, Gastro Park can serve as an incubator for new businesses and a way for existing small businesses to expand. Currently, Norden said, the only similar concept in the state is in Stamford, run by New Canaan restaurant Tequila Mockingbird at Shippan Landing.
The business plan is for the food trucks to pay Gastro Park 12 percent of daily receipts as their fee – ensuring that both the food truck vendors and Gastro Park are invested in the success and sustainability of the overall operation and the creation of a “small business eco-system that can promote growth.”
Gastro Park is also about creating community, Norden said. “Food is one of the things we unite upon,” said Norden, and while 637 New Park may not look like much now, it will be transformed into indoor and outdoor spaces where people of all ages can pop in for a quick meal, sample a variety of food and drink, or choose to spend hours together playing bocce ball or other games.
Food trucks present an “experiential dining concept,” Norden said. They won’t replace restaurants because they are a completely different style of experience. The Hartford area is now or will soon be home to several unique and innovative concepts including a food hall on Park Street, a beer garden in Bushnell Park, and pop-up restaurants.
“If West Hartford wants to be attractive we need to stay progressive,” Norden said.
Norden has been working with the town to craft the site plan and open Gastro Park for the past two years, and the most recent obstacle was when it became apparent that the town’s TND (traditional neighborhood design) zoning overlay applied to the property.
The TND zone overlay – put into place years ago when the Town Council was considering Quaker Green and other development in Elmwood – requires parking to be behind buildings to maintain the neighborhood feel. In order to comply, Norden constructed a retaining wall at the rear of the property so that parking could be accommodated, at an extra cost of about $70,000. In the proposed amendment to the ordinance, Norden requested the Council to eliminate the requirement of two parking spaces per food truck, which was in addition to requiring one parking space per three restaurant seats.
The building on the site will not be a full bar and restaurant, as originally contemplated, but will have indoor seating and restrooms in addition to selling beer and wine. Trucks will always be on site vending. It’s a business model that is consistent throughout the country where food truck parks exist, Norden said.
There is the possibility of building a commissary kitchen on the site in the future, he said.
Council members were unanimous in their support of the project, thankful to Norden for remaining patient, and hopeful that Gastro Park will at long last move forward.
“A few years ago when this came up there were concerns from some of the restaurants that this would adversely impact their business and they voiced those objections,” said Republican Chris Williams.
Since then there have not been any objections, and the opening of New Park Brewing, right up the road, has not created any concerns among restaurants, Williams said, voicing his support for the project.
“Thank you Tate for investing in West Hartford, for keeping West Hartford innovative, keeping it desirable,” said Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan. She said she was excited about being able to have a night out there with her kids.
Democrat Dallas Dodge also thanked Norden for his investment. When the Council approved the Cottage Food Operations ordinance earlier in the month, he said, the goal was to provide a “food small business incubator. … My hope is that your food park perhaps has the same effect, that folks can at a smaller scale start off with a food truck” and then open a brick and mortar restaurant.
“I love this idea,” said Republican Mary Fay, who said she has seen food truck parks in other parts of the country. West Hartford is already known as a dining mecca, she said, but the food truck park adds something new and is a “tweener” – in the middle of fine dining and fast casual.
“I, too, think it’s a great idea, I love the rendering, and I think it’s going to be a great place,” added Minority Leader Chris Barnes.
Democrat Leon Davidoff said that as the ordinance was originally crafted, it would have been difficult to make the food truck park work. The changes approved by the Council Tuesday night – removing the requirement of two spaces per food truck and allowing beer and wine to be sold, “will make his Gastro Park a venture that will be successful.”
Davidoff also thanked Norden for the efforts he undertook in dealing with obstacles to the project, including learning about the TND at the 11th hour. Had the Council not approved the amendments, the project would have been “dead on arrival,” he said.
“I think we are going to see a lot more dining that is experiential in town,” said Davidoff, and it’s something that millennials will expect.
“I really, really appreciate everybody working together to come up with a way to make the model work,” said Mayor Shari Cantor, effusive in her praise for the project.
Gastro Park is a way to encourage flourishing entrepreneurship, and food truck are “a labor of love,” she said, that allow diners an intimate connection with the chef.
The experiential dining concept that is Gastro Park will build community, and offer day-long entertainment for people of all ages.
“I do see this being a great asset to the town and I thank you for your investment and your patience,” said Cantor.
Norden told We-Ha.com that the soon-to-be renovated building, most recently home to Kelsey’s Auto Sales, will contain a seating area and a bar where patrons will be able to purchase local craft beer and wine.
Outdoors will feature seating, a fire pit, and lawn games including corn hole and bocce. There will be parking spaces for four food trucks.
“We receive follow-up requests every week,” Norden said regarding possible food truck vendors, and he currently has more than 30 that are interested in coming to Gastro Park.
When Gastro Park opens this fall, and through April 2020, Norden said the planned hours of operation will be Thursday and Friday from 4-11 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Hours will expand next spring, with additional weekday lunch and dinner options.
Norden had also requested a waiver of the fee for the application, an amount which Town Manager Matt Hart said totals about $550, not including fees to the state which the town is not able to waive. If the town itself had brought forward the amendment, which is the usual process but in this case would have led to further delays, there would not have been a fee, Hart said.
Although several councilors voiced concerns that the wavier of the fee would set a precedent for future applications, the waiver was approved by a vote of 7-2, with Barnes and Fay opposed.
Cantor said she approved the waiver because it’s really an umbrella ordinance for the entire town, and Gastro Park should not have to bear the burden.
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