PAOLA — Rick Schoenberger worked hard to develop a strong customer base at The BBQ Shack in Paola.
After the barbecue restaurant was featured on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2007, it started attracting customers from all across the country.
But like many restaurant owners, Schoenberger eventually found himself struggling with a variety of logistical issues with the business, not the least of which was trying to find reliable employees.
“I couldn’t find help at the end,” he said.
The restaurant officially closed last May, but it wasn’t the end of The BBQ Shack. Schoenberger decided to purchase a vehicle with a mobile kitchen and enter the growing world of food truck vendors.
On many days, local residents can find Schoenberger set up in the Family Center parking lot, but he’s also traveled outside the community to places such as office complexes in the city or the Kansas City Auto Show.
“I’m having fun again,” Schoenberger said.
And he’s not alone.
Justin and Renee Bowman of Paola set up their new Bull Creek BBQ food truck at the Paola Muffler Mart parking lot for the first time Saturday, March 2, and they found instant success with customers lining up for some tasty barbecue.
“We sold 60 meals in 60 minutes,” Renee said.
Justin previously has had success competing at barbecue contests throughout the region. Bull Creek BBQ was the grand champion of the Border War BBQ contest in Osawatomie last year, and Justin was a part of local teams that won Best of Miami County at the Roots Festival barbecue competition in 2014 and 2017.
The Bowmans have continued to set up at the Muffler Mart parking lot on other Saturdays since their kickoff, and they continue to have success.
The trend is catching on outside of Paola too.
The Spring Hill Chamber of Commerce recently held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the grand opening of The Juan and Only Food Truck, which is giving Spring Hill residents a new option when they’re craving tacos.
Kenny Birkholz said he’s been operating food trucks for more than 20 years, and he started at the Roots Festival in Paola. He offers a variety of items, including Philly cheesesteaks and lemonades.
“We go out to Arizona by the spring training fields, and there will be 110 trucks serving 50,000 people,” Birkholz said.
Although he doesn’t expect a gathering of that size in Paola, Birkholz said he is working to organize a food truck rally in which multiple local vendors could set up somewhere close to Park Square, perhaps in a nearby city parking lot.
All of the discussion has captured the attention of Paola city officials, who have been working to come up with a way to regulate the operation of mobile food trucks within the city limits.
Assistant City Clerk Stephanie Marler has taken a lead role in coming up with the proposed regulations, and they were reviewed by Paola City Council members during their April 9 meeting.
The proposal includes offering the city’s Parking Lot No. 1 off the northwest corner of Park Square as a public location that food trucks could set up at on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. This would be in addition to private property, where they already are allowed to operate with the property owner’s permission.
Food truck vendors also would be required to acquire a city license to operate at a cost of $25 per day or $250 per year.
The food trucks would be required to stay at least 150 feet away from the front door of brick-and-mortar restaurants and at least 500 feet from a city-approved event without permission from the event organizer.
There are multiple exceptions listed, including vendors selling as part of a city-approved event with street closures; vendors selling food that does not require temperature control such as lemonade stands and bake sales; licensed caterers and ice cream vendors.
All mobile food vendors also will be required to maintain all applicable licenses and permits and fill out an application that includes, among other things, proof of a current Health Inspection Certificate from the state of Kansas.
The Paola City Council members took no action on the proposed regulations during their April 9 meeting, as City Clerk Dan Droste said city officials first wanted to get feedback from local food truck vendors before bringing the issue back before the council for a vote.