This story has been updated; scroll to bottom of text.
The sudden cancellation by RI state government of the remaining six of eight food truck events scheduled for 2021 in Colt and Goddard State Parks comes amidst a serious conflict of views as to what happened at the two events that were actually held.
According to Eric Weiner of FoodTrucksIn.com/PVD Food Truck Events, the coordinator for these events and many others involving independent food trucks, RI Parks and Recreation notified him on May 28 that the then-seven remaining events would be canceled.
“They last Friday asked if we were available for a quick Zoom call, and during that Zoom call they told us that they had been having internal conversations and that, after talking to the park managers, they had made a decision to call in the clause in our agreement that they could cancel events that they didn’t have enough staff to handle the events, and that’s what they were doing,” Weiner told Motif. “Obviously, we panicked immediately because this was Friday of the holiday weekend, and we reminded them that our next event was scheduled in just five days… and that it was too many people relying on an event five days away to cancel it with such short notice. They got back to us and said that we could actually do this event this past Wednesday, but all events after that would need to be canceled.”
Only events at those two state parks are canceled. Weiner said, “I want to make sure it’s really clear to people that all of our other series of events in cities and towns, and city parks, are unaffected.” Roger Williams Park, which hosts Weiner’s flagship Friday events at the Carousel Village, is owned by the City of Providence rather than the state, and events there are continuing as scheduled.
Michael Healey, chief public affairs officer at the RI Department of Environmental Management that oversees Parks and Recreation, said in a statement to Motif that “DEM has received a number of positive comments from Rhode Islanders who enjoyed the first events, held May 19 and June 2, at Colt State Park. At the same time, however, there was a parking problem when more than 1,500 people in 600 cars overwhelmed the 197 parking spots. DEM needed to pull Parks and Recreation staff from other needs in the region to manage the event safely. Also, existing restrooms were not adequate for both event attendees and other park patrons.”
Weiner directly contested these claims, saying, “We think that over the three-hour event, on Wednesday night, we parked about 350 cars, and probably 2 to 3 people per car.” Asked by Motif to respond to Healey’s statement specifically, Weiner said, “I took pictures of the parking areas every 45 minutes and, at the peak of the event at 6:15 and 7:00pm, there were parking lots that were 100% empty. The event ended by 8:00pm, and by 7:15pm all the park rangers had left the area because they were not needed. If there were 600 cars over the course of the three hours, they were not there the entire time and never filled up the parking lots.” Weiner said, “I have pictures showing that neither overflow parking lot was used at all.” Weiner also told Motif, “We were monitoring the restrooms, and the restrooms on the far side of the park were not impacted by our event at all, and it was never a line to use the restrooms at the ones closest to the event space.”
Healey said in the statement to Motif that DEM canceled the food truck events scheduled for the state parks in July because “more Rhode Islanders visit state parks and beaches in July than any other month,” but was open to considering such events in August and September when the parks would be less busy and there would be time to plan to bring in portable toilets and take other needed measures. Healey said DEM has been unable to hire enough seasonal employees, with only 391 of 503 positions currently filled. “DEM will continue to work in good faith to help food truck operators increase their business while, at the same time, ensuring that the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who view state parks as their ‘backyard’ have public places to go to that are clean, quiet, and inviting,” Healey said.
Weiner estimated the economic impact as substantial, not only for the 12 to 15 food trucks and their workers at each Wednesday event, but also for his own staff and local musicians he hires. “For trucks that are grinding it out throughout the week to have a place where they can go on a Wednesday night to generate revenue is not something that’s easily replaced. We’re very strategic about adding Wednesday and Thursday night events because that’s the money that helps trucks be profitable, in addition to the revenues that they generate from the weekend.” At the Wednesday events that last 3 to 4 hours, “On average, the trucks serve about 30 customers per hour,” Weiner said. “On an average night, an average truck would like to make $600 to $800 in revenue… There’s no doubt when people come to our events, that when they’re coming and they’re going, they stop at other retailers or other businesses in the town, so for people that are coming into Colt State Park, there’s 800 people coming to that event over the course of the night on Wednesday night, that’s also 800 people driving through Bristol and Warren, and then maybe coming back and renting a camp site at Colt State Park. We had a number of people tell us it was their first time ever at Colt State Park… The direct and the indirect impacts are really things that should be thought about in general.”
Per contract, the event coordinator reimburses the state for extra costs incurred. “The original plan was that they told us that we needed two park rangers. Now that is seeming to increase to 4 to 6 plus an environmental police officer. We’re not necessarily opposed to paying a fair share for the event to go on, but it doesn’t seem like this is just about the cost of the event. It seems like there may be other issues,” Weiner said. “We’re paying for rangers to help with parking. We’re paying a dump fee to take all the trash to a Dumpster. We’re paying for state services to be able to use the parks for the event.”
When the second event on June 2 was allowed to take place, Weiner said, “Our hope was that the event Wednesday would go completely smoothly and that they would reconsider that decision. The event did go smoothly. We monitored the parking; the parking lot never filled up. There was no trash left behind. There were no incidents with behavior. People on our Facebook event pages actually went out of the way to say what a great time they had. But still, that did not change any of the decision to tell us that we could not continue on with either the events at Colt State Park or the events at Goddard Park, which are supposed to start next Wednesday [June 9].”
Weiner said that he is still talking with DEM. “Our hope is that something develops quickly with DEM to figure out a way to let us do this at a part of Goddard Park where we can support the event. Goddard Park’s a huge park, there is a great waterfront area, there’s plenty of parking by the Goddard beach. We’re hoping that someone in DEM or in state government will find a way to let this event happen. If not, we are going to be spending our weekend and our Monday looking for an alternate place, any place, hopefully nearby in that area where we can do the event instead. But we are really not in a position where we can afford to cancel this event: too many people are looking forward to the event and relying on the revenue. So our goal is to have an event somewhere Wednesday night, and what that looks like yet we really just don’t know.”
Over the next few days, efforts continue; however, time will be very short, Weiner acknowledged. “We’re ready and we have a plan. If they give us the go-ahead, we have been prepared and ready to produce an event at Goddard Park on Wednesday night… We just need the voice of the public to be heard: It’s been almost completely on our side of saying that we were able to do this during the pandemic. They’ve been events that people are appreciating and enjoying, and there’s no downside. It’s not impacting anyone negatively. We’re hoping that they’re going to come back around relatively soon so that we can be a go on Goddard instead of finding just a parking lot somewhere in a town that allows us to come in.”
UPDATE: RI DEM agreed to allow the June 9 event to be held as originally scheduled at Goddard Park. On June 18, spokesman Michael Healey told Motif in response to an inquiry, “We had a successful food truck event with a good turnout at Goddard State Park last week. We hope the PVD Food Truck operators did a good bit of business. DEM is optimistic that the two events initially planned for July will go ahead. The exact dates may or may not change and there still are contingencies and final details to be worked out. We will be reaching out to the vendor very shortly to discuss.”