The large, red, white and blue Cool Juicy Bus is hard to miss as you drive down Pioneer Avenue in downtown Homer. It’s a summer installation that serves up smoothies and juice drinks to go.
It’s parked just up the street from Cosmic Kitchen, a brick and mortar restaurant that serves, among other things, smoothies.
“The dispute arose because the Juicy Bus set up right next to the Cosmic Kitchen and then they put a big sign right on the property line but basically right in front of the Cosmic Kitchen so it kind of impeded the view,” says Homer city manager, Walt Wrede.
This problem of similar commodities being sold near each other is rooted in Homer city code. To set up shop in the first place, a mobile food vendor needs to get a special license from the city, via the police department. To get a license, business owners need to submit to background checks and fingerprinting, among other things. The Cool Juicy Bus did all of this, and, got a license. So, they set up and started selling.
“But there’s a section in the Homer city code that says if you’re a mobile food vendor, you can’t park in front of or immediately adjacent to an established business that provides similar or the same products,” says Wrede.
This part of the code was put in place to protect locally owned and operated businesses, especially in the summertime on the touristy Homer Spit. Tourists bring dollars which bring seasonal vendors which compete with established mom-and-pop shops.
“People invest in their buildings, they invest in their business, they employ people, they pay property tax and they are really fixtures here," says Wrede. "They don’t want somebody during the summer months to just cruise in, set up shop right in front of them and compete with them.”
The Cool Juicy Bus is a locally-owned business, even though it's mobile. It's parked next to Cosmic Kitchen, but perhaps not immediately adjacent to it, as the ordinance prohibits.
The overall problem is, the code is vague. It doesn’t specify how close is too close. It’s not clear on whether a property line is a proper divide or if it needs to be measured in feet and inches. It doesn’t say if smoothies are the same as juice drinks or if those compete with shakes, malts, or fruit cups.
“Well, that’s one of the problems," says Wrede. "Our code is not very specific about that. It just says you can’t be in front of or adjacent to. So, you know, it was a judgment call on the city’s part and we looked at it and said well, yeah, that’s pretty much next to the Cosmic Kitchen. But, it would be beneficial if we could tighten that up a bit and have a little more specificity in there.”
So, the Cosmic Kitchen filed a complaint against The Cool Juicy Bus. The police department opened an investigation, decided the products and placement were too close, and ordered the bus to shut down until it could move to a more appropriate location.
The Cool Juicy Bus dutifully took down its big sign and drove a little ways up the road. But here’s the catch- it’s still, technically, the business next to Cosmic Kitchen. It’s just a little more of a walk.
“So, from the city’s point of view, nothing much had changed, but the Cosmic Kitchen decided to withdraw their complaint and they asked us to not enforce it anymore and allow the Juicy Bus to operate at that location," says Wrede. "So, the city wanted to respect their request and we told the Juicy Bus that they could reopen.”
Now, The Cool Juicy Bus is up and running, and Cosmic Kitchen is open and serving. It’s a happy ending –or at least a decent compromise— for both businesses.
But it’s brought to light some holes in the city code regarding mobile vendors that will likely come up again.
Correction: This story originally ran identifying the business as the Juicy Bus. The proper name is The Cool Juicy Bus. We apologize for the error.