Food truck debut leaves some in Langley with sour taste

Joe Wierzbowski displays a freshly cooked lunch from his food truck in Langley Thursday. The new business has come under fire from neighboring buisness owners and members of the city council.

For a parked food truck, The Big Wierzbowski’s first week in Langley has been one bumpy road.

The new business, the first in a commercial experiment approved by the city council earlier this year, rolled into town last week on Thursday and it was trouble from the start.

With no electricity, firing up the grills meant firing up a generator — people complained about noise.

Though the food truck was parked in the spot designated by the city at the entrance to Seawall Park — people complained the truck blocked the view.

The awning is too low, the truck is too long, it’s white and had no decorations or menus, there was no garbage or recycling — the list of gripes from neighboring business owners and even two city council members was extensive. And though some of the dust has since settled, and many of the issues at least temporarily resolved, owner Joe Wierzbowski took the headaches and controversy in stride.

“There’s always going to be hiccups with a new business,” said the 29-year-old chef with a grin. “Just working through the kinks will take a week or so.”

Friendly and quick to smile, he said despite the waves the community had been largely welcoming, supportive and, perhaps best of all, hungry. Open four days a week, Thursday through Sunday, he’s been selling between 30 and 50 meals a day, he said.

And based on a small sample Thursday at noon, people seem to like the food.

“I got the Big W,” said Pat Bitts, a Clinton resident, between a mouthful of Wierzbowski’s signature lunch of kielbasa and sauerkraut and fries. “It’s delicious.”

“We think this is a really good addition to Langley,” he added.

Bitts was there grabbing a bite with the Men’s Out to Lunch Group, a small club of friends who regularly get together for tasty island food. Their loosely appointed leader, Dan Saul, wholly endorsed the food truck and Wierzbowski’s culinary skills.

“Really nice,” said Saul, who got a lentil quinoa burger for himself and Portobello mushroom meal for his wife.

Justin Burnett / The Record | The Big Wierzbowski food truck sits at its new spot in front of the Dog House Tavern in Langley on Thursday.

Others, however, aren’t so impressed — with the new business anyway. According to Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, city hall has received about a half a dozen complaints since The Big Wierzbowski first set its parking brake last week. Many of the largest grievances have been addressed: the generator is off and the truck is now wired into power for which Wierzbowski will get a bill, the view blockage was addressed by moving the vehicle a few feet west on First Street — it’s now in front of the Dog House — Wierzbowski has a printed menu on the side of the truck and garbage and recycling cans are out.

These were temporary hurdles, said McCarthy, that he believes have been overcome by a willing business owner and action taken by city staff. It wasn’t a flawless first start, but the mayor said he still supports the plan for Langley’s newest industry.

“These food trucks add an exciting dimension to a city like ours,” McCarthy said.

But, the future of food trucks and their presence on First Street remains unclear. City Councilwoman Rene Neff, who voted to approve food trucks earlier this year on a temporary trial run, was one of those who complained to McCarthy. She said this week that once the vehicle was in place the shortcomings of the city’s ordinance and the council’s decision became clear.

“It’s too huge, it’s white… it’s too big for the space,” she said.

“It’s not the right size for our little town.”

Neff is the former owner of Brackenwood Gallery, and currently works as its manager. The business is located right next to the entrance of Seawall Park where the truck was first parked.

The vehicle’s length actually exceeds the ordinance’s 20-foot maximum, but it’s a violation city leaders don’t plan to enforce. McCarthy said the difference is between 2 and 4 feet — he couldn’t confirm the exact overage — but says it’s not enough to warrant the permanent ousting of the truck from operation in Langley despite it not meeting existing city code.

“We’re aware it’s a couple feet longer, but we didn’t think it so much that it would be out of compliance,” McCarthy said.

According to Wierzbowski, it’s an old bread delivery truck that he had professionally converted into a mobile kitchen for his new business.

In an email to the mayor this week, Michael Davolio, the city’s planning chief, said Wierzbowski’s application didn’t mention the truck was longer than 20 feet, but he pointed out that it was still approved by city decision makers.

“The proposal submitted by Mr. Wierzbowski was approved by the city council,” he wrote. “In reliance on that approval, Mr. Wierzbowski has spent considerable sums of money to establish his business.”

He suggested the move in front of the Dog House as a compromise in exchange for permitting the longer vehicle. The area has a red curb, which restricts parking, but it will be reversed with the yellow area currently in front of the park entrance, McCarthy said.

But there are other problems as well. David Price, owner of edit on First Street, claims the truck should have been subject to the same review process as other businesses, with it being OK’d first by the Langley Design Review Board.

“It’s not his [Wierzbowski’s] fault, the city let him open without going through the appropriate process,” he said.

Also, in its present location the truck blocks the stop sign from view of motorists who approach the intersection of First Street and Anthes Avenue. It’s a safety hazard that’s been addressed with a moveable stop sign placed along the driver’s side of the truck.

“Like 20 cars blew through the stop sign before they put that up,” Price said.

In a formal email to the mayor Friday morning, Price scolded McCarthy and his staff for “knowingly and illegally” approving a “non-compliant application (under both the Food Vending Ordinance and Design Review section of the Zoning Code) and the City of Langley is facilitating the continued operation of this business with further non-compliant actions.”

Price demanded the food truck be shut down until the business goes through “the proper application process and brought into compliance.”

“The operator of the business, while being put in a difficult situation, has shared responsibility as the applicable codes are readily available for review,” he wrote. “The City will need to determine how to compensate the business owner for their part in the matter.”

Neff said she plans to bring the issue up at the next council meeting and propose the designated spot on First Street be moved, either to a space near Langley Park on Second Street and Anthes Avenue or to the US Bank parking lot across the street with the truck alongside the Langley Chamber of Commerce. She noted that the latter would require the bank’s permission.

Neff called Wierzbowski a “sweet man” who was “really trying” to be a good neighbor.

“All of us want him to succeed,” said Neff, but there’s a multitude of issues that need to be addressed.

Wierzbowski said he is trying to work with everyone, but satisfying so many has been a challenge. He added that he’s already relocated once, so isn’t excited about the prospect of yet another move.

Being invited to town only to arrive and get flak for operating the business city leaders approved has been confusing, he said, but true to form Wierzbowski is shrugging it off.

“It’s kinda frustrating, but I’ll take the blows as they come,” he said.

“I’m the new guy in town.”