Since 2012, the Asheville Street Food Coalition has rented and managed The Lot at 51 Coxe Ave., where assorted food trucks dole out delectable edibles to several hundred customers a week. But as of Oct. 1, Johnny and Susan Robinson, who own the lot along with Johnny’s two siblings, have taken over its management.
The changeover came after months of back and forth between the coalition and the Robinsons. The shift began last spring when the lease on the lot’s small building became available. The coalition saw that as a chance to make further improvements.
“We wanted to put in a taproom, a coffeehouse, bathrooms and build a deck around the building,” says Suzy Phillips, one of the three original coalition lot managers who invested in improvements to the property. “We met with Johnny, and he was going to give us a good lease for about $700 to $800 more a month. The coalition would do the renovations so that we could operate there all year,” says Phillips, who owns Gypsy Queen Cuisine.
But when the group met with Robinson again, Susan Robinson became involved, says Steven Paulson of Melt Your Heart food truck, another of the coalition’s lot managers. “Johnny said, ‘Susan wants in the business.’”
Johnny Robinson concurs, saying, “One of the truck owners had expressed interest in making a coffeehouse out of the building, but nothing was etched in stone. Susan’s job at the YWCA was eliminated, and she expressed interest in working at the lot. She thought the building would be great for serving tea, coffee, and beer and wine at night.”
The coalition, though, wanted to continue managing the business it had started. So in midsummer, Phillips, Paulson and Eli Masem (who has since sold his truck) came up with two proposals. One was that they’d continue renting and managing the lot and would upgrade the building, with the understanding that the rent would increase as improvements were made.
The other proposal called for the Robinsons to buy out “The Lot/Asheville Street Food Coalition” for $9,500 to $10,000 to cover the improvements the group had already made (such as installing power boxes, poles, lights and planters) and the brand they’d built, including more than 3,000 Facebook followers.
In early September, the Robinsons countered with their own proposals. The first offered a three-year lease on both lot and building, beginning in October, for $1,800 a month. In April, it would increase to $2,300 a month. Previously, the rent had been $1,000 a month just for the lot.
The Robinsons say the new rent was based on their consultation with Rick Tisdale of Beverly-Hanks & Associates, who specializes in commercial property. “The rent we had been charging was not a fair market value, so we had been taking a loss for two years, supporting to some degree the development of the food truck lot,” says Susan. Under the original lease agreement, she continues, “All improvements made to the lot become the property of the owners.” And from that standpoint, “We didn’t feel that the coalition’s social media presence was worth $9,500 to $10,000.”
The Robinsons’ second proposal was that they assume control and management of the property and collect daily rent from the trucks.
Phillips, who’s now left the lot, sees it this way: “Susan Robinson wanted our business; we wanted fair compensation for what we had done. We worked hard to get the lot to be what it is. If she had compensated us for that, I would still be there.”
Paulson, too, feels the Robinsons behaved unfairly, asserting, “They basically took our business out from under us.”
Johnny, meanwhile, wishes they’d had more opportunity to work out a compromise. “No one said, ‘Let’s negotiate this: You’re high here and unfair there,’” he points out. Instead, “The coalition just said no and went to the media. We never got a chance to explain where we were coming from.”
Stay or go?
Although at least three trucks have left the lot, nine will continue to keep some hours this fall, notes Paulson. “October and November are the last months you can make money: You get iced out.”
For their part, the Robinsons say they hope the trucks remain. “All the food trucks are welcome,” Johnny says.
But the controversy and resulting acrimony have sparked many comments on the coalition’s Facebook page, including some suggestions for a new food truck home. One of the first offers came from the Masonic Temple on Broadway. That lot, however, is leased to a parking company, and there are only two spaces for trucks, says Phillips, adding, “It’s hard to get in and out with big trucks and trailers.”
The coalition is also talking with Dean Pistor of Realty World Marketplace, who’s developing a food park at Amboy Road and State Street, near Carrier Park. “We want the park to be a place with local beer and a destination for food trucks, with a commissary kitchen for prep, cleaning and cold storage,” Pistor explains, noting that he hopes to open the facility next spring.
John Pomeroy, who owns New Mountain AVL, a music and event space on North French Broad, is also interested. “We’ve offered a free place to set up, do business and have autonomy,” he says. “We want to be as flexible as possible, so it works out for the food trucks and the community.”
Pomeroy has received a six-month permit from the city and plans to do the necessary work — run power, plant trees — to earn a permanent permit. “If the food trucks are willing, we’ll move forward to open ASAP,” he says.