In the last couple of years, trucks selling everything from Korean tacos to fancy grilled cheese have become a common sight in St. Louis.
Now a new crop of local entrepreneurs is taking the mobile concept one step further by selling summer dresses, vintage shoes and organic teas from their shops on wheels. But, as was the case with the food trucks, they have had a bumpy start, running into a number of roadblocks with the city along the way.
The issue came to a head last week when Emily Ponath, 31, tired of being told that only food trucks can get permits to sell on city streets, decided to take her Rack + Clutch truck and its “free range fashion” to the streets anyway.
“I’m not trying to deliberately break rules,” she said on a recent day, while parked in a lot across from Busch Stadium. “I just want to be able to park on the street just like the food trucks.”
She noted that downtown restaurants didn’t necessarily like it when the food trucks first popped up.
“But there are not nearly as many retailers downtown as there are restaurants,” she said. “And I know a lot of the local retailers in town. I would never park close to them anyway.”
Her rogue truck, which was shut down once last week when she parked near Citygarden, prompted a blog post from Mayor Francis Slay this week.
The mayor said that he was open to finding a solution to making the streets open to mobile retail but that the city needed to hammer out some details first.
“We need to find out a way to license mobile boutiques — or florists, stylists, or other services/goods — that does not put brick and mortar stores, who have already made substantial investments in their neighborhoods, at a disadvantage,” Slay wrote. “We will also need to identify neighborhoods that will welcome them. And we will need to satisfy the revenue collectors and law enforcers.”
In the blog post, the mayor added that for now, these retail trucks are “pirates” — a description that did not sit well with Ponath.
“I don’t think I’m stealing from anyone,” she said, noting that she paid for a business license and was collecting sales taxes.
She said she just wanted to find a cost-effective way to run a boutique after her previous employer, a store in the Central West End, shut down last year.
“Boutiques in St. Louis close all of the time,” she said. “There’s not enough foot traffic. And it’s hard to get yourself out there.”
Ponath had heard about the retail truck movement on the West Coast, where mobile stores sell everything from flowers to shoes to bikinis. So she thought this would be a much cheaper way to launch her business.
While the city has not been so hospitable to her truck, she said shoppers loved it. The day she was at Citygarden, she sold about $1,000 in jewelry before she was shut down. Since then, she hasn’t run into problems when parking her truck at other spots around town, such as near St. Louis University.
Todd Waelterman, the city streets director, said his department wasn’t prepared to tackle the issue of retail trucks.
“We’re not ready to set up flea markets on our streets, which is where you’re heading with this,” he said.
The city is finally getting comfortable with food trucks after a rough beginning, he added. The city has a list of regulations, such as that a food truck can’t park within 200 feet of a restaurant. The brokered peace seems to be working, he added, noting that things went fairly smoothly last year.
Twenty-four food trucks have active permits with the city, he said. Though the trucks are not permitted in most parts of the city outside of downtown, he said his department did not actively police the issue.
“We’re not on a witch hunt,” he said. “If we get a complaint, then we address it.”
While the city figures out what to do with retail trucks, two entrepreneurs who last summer launched their trucks — well, technically trailers — have been sticking to places where they know they can legally operate: at special events such as craft festivals and on private property.
“We are legitimate businesses,” said Lisa Govro, who runs ReTrailer, a business that sells dried and brewed teas. “We don’t want to do anything that is illegal” or angers anybody.
So she and Beth Styles of Parsimonia, who sells vintage goods, have been trying to broker deals with officials and businesses along Cherokee Street and South Grand in the hopes of setting up a nearby pop-up mobile retail mall one day a week.
They are also in the process of forming a mobile retail association in St. Louis through which they can mobilize as a group. They’ve already spoken to a handful of other entrepreneurs who are in the midst of putting together other retail truck concepts such as a mobile hair salon, a photo booth, and another vintage clothing store.
“We realize our concepts are new and different,” Govro said. “Change can sometimes be hard for people. So we’re trying as hard as we can to make friends with our aldermen and to make friends with the (brick-and-mortar) businesses.”
Their argument is that they can be an added attraction — a unique retail experience — that draws more people to the area and to neighboring businesses. In the case of South Grand, they are throwing around ideas such as paying a fee to contribute to that area’s community improvement district.
Rachel Witt, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District, said the board and local alderman wanted to wait until the association is formed before setting up the mobile mall. The proposed location for it is in a district-owned parking lot behind a bank at 3500 Hartford.
“We think it’s a great idea,” she said. “I see it as an incubator for future retail space hopefully on South Grand or somewhere in the vicinity.”
She added that some food trucks had opened restaurants, so hopefully it would be the same with these mobile retailers.
Styles, who started her business as an online Etsy shop a few years ago after being laid off from a magazine editing job, would one day like to open a bricks-and-mortar store. But the cost to do so right now was out of her budget. So she decided to go with the trailer idea instead.
As for the mobile mall idea, she said she’d be happy to contribute some sort of a fee to the business district so businesses don’t think they are trying to “mooch” off the reputations they’ve helped build.
“We’re just trying to figure out how a nontraditional business model can fit in the city,” she said.
Kavita Kumar covers retail and consumer affairs for the Post-Dispatch. She blogs on Consumer Central. Follow her on Twitter @kavitakumar.