Should the city allow food trucks in Asheville’s central business district? The question has turned into a fiery debate, with fierce opinions on both sides. After nearly a year of intense discussion, food-truck vendors are still at odds with many downtown stakeholders — though it’s beginning to look like food trucks will happen downtown, it’s just a matter of when. The debate has turned ever more heated as vendors watch another summer tourist season start to slip away.
Meanwhile, the Asheville Downtown Commission is working to decide what it thinks is best: to undo or preserve a 25-year-old policy banning food trucks in Asheville’s central business district. A recent survey of more than 650 people showed about 75 percent in favor of the idea of food trucks downtown, according to data presented at a recent Asheville Downtown Association meeting.
Still, it’s a complicated matter that’s the talk of the food town at the moment. Here, an attempt to answer some of the questions.
Frequently asked questions
What’s all the fuss about?
Food truck vendors would like the chance to move in from the outskirts of town (where they are currently allowed, at sites for which they secure a permit and arrange for consent with the property owner) to the richer (they believe) economic climate of the central business district.
A vocal group of downtown stakeholders is opposed. Food trucks will be loud, unsightly and create litter, opponents say. And restaurants and food trucks will compete for diner dollars during a difficult economic time. Many of those restaurants helped revitalize downtown, pay taxes and employ staffers. Their stake should be protected.
The other side of the coin? Food trucks wouldn’t take business away from brick-and-mortar restaurants, but rather corner the market on brown-bagging downtown workers and late-night revelers who don’t have many options for quick, portable fare. Many food truck vendors also say that they view the mobile-food business as a stepping stone to owning a restaurant — loans are tough to come by these days.
What kind of food can you expect from a food truck?
Here in Asheville, we already have Indian fry bread tacos, local-meat burgers, falafel and more. In other cities, food trucks are often mobile taquerias, noodle houses and panini shops.
Why are food carts permitted downtown but not food trucks?
Food carts are allowed because they vend prepackaged food. Items like hot dogs and lemonade may be prepared onsite, but little else is permitted. Under the current rules governing mobile food vendors, all other food must be prepared offsite in a certified kitchen — that’s why Bandido’s Burritos (which has a West Asheville restaurant) can sometimes be found downtown vending tamales.
The pushcart is downtown’s answer to mobile vending for now, says Alan Glines, an urban planner for the city of Asheville. They are regulated and licensed by the city, and must pick one of a couple of dozen available and approved locations — and stay there.
Do any other cities currently say no to food trucks?
The food-truck debate is raging in many other cities. A chapter of the Mobile Food Vendors Association is working to try get the city of Charlotte to relax its food-truck ordinance, which the vendors association there views as strict. An online group in support of food trucks (with the tagline "Carne asada is not a crime") has more than 400 fans, and more than 600 people attended a food-truck rally in the area last month. “Now some city leaders want to reconsider some rules,” says the report, “worried they might stifle small-business owners and mar Charlotte's reputation as a progressive, business-friendly place.”
Detroit, Mich. has a food policy that very closely mirrors ours, allowing only hot dog carts and beverages in the business district and no food trucks. In a Detroit-based business blog, Crain’s Detroit Business, staff writer Nathan Skid tackles the issue. Chris Gulock, a city planner with the Detroit Planning Commission told Skid that “the commission is hesitant to change the ordinances surrounding what can be sold by both food trucks and street vendors because it wants to protect current restaurant owners from competition.”
“How can Detroit create a population density of small, independently owned businesses if the goal is to reduce competition?” Skid writes, reflecting concerns voiced in Asheville as well.
Raleigh, doesn’t allow food trucks to roam on public streets, but does issue temporary permits to vendors for festivals and other events. According to a report from Andrea Weigl, staff writer for the Raleigh News and Observer, Raleigh City Council wants to craft a policy to allow food trucks to operate on private property. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar restaurant owners are pushing for stricter regulations. “[Restaurateurs] also raised concerns about food safety and health inspection for food trucks and worried that the trucks would take valuable and scarce parking spots from customers,” writes Weigl, who could easily be reporting about the Asheville debate.
And who says yes?
Plenty of larger cities have embraced the food truck culture. New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are home to mobile food vendors that can boast features on the Food Network and in the pages of the New York Times. Both Portland, Ore. and Atlanta have street-food festivals. And while every city is different, food truck proponents argue that ordinances drafted for Asheville’s unique needs could solve most problems. Limiting the quantity of vending licenses issued would be a first step in the right direction.
Austin’s food-truck operators were having issues disposing of waste like fryer oil, so a local organized the Food Trailer Alliance. In WNC, the Asheville Street Food Coalition, is forming among food truck operators and other interested parties to help with similar issues.
Are food trucks inspected?
Yes, they receive routine inspections from the health department. Food trucks must adhere to the same health and safety standards of any foodservice establishment. “They receive random checks three or four times a year and receive a kitchen grade, just like restaurants,” says Glines.
Suzy Phillips, the owner of Gypsy Queen Cuisine Lebanese Street Food (she vends out of her truck, Spartacus) says that in her first two months of operation, she received “pop-up,” or random and unannounced inspections, twice.
Is there a limit on food-truck permits?
There could be special recommendations for the number of permits allowed downtown, but that’s what the Downtown Commission has to struggle through once they determine whether or not the trucks will be allowed at all. The current proposed ordinance (dated June 29) would impose a limit of 10 permits for the downtown CBD.
A full year to even take a vote on whether food trucks should be downtown? That’s a long time to discuss something with a yes or no answer.
It certainly is, say food-truck vendors who feel like they are losing money while the meetings drag on. But others say that these things take time.
Dwight Butner, who owns a restaurant and property in the downtown area and sits on the Downtown Commission, recommends a cautious approach. “To suggest that we can’t sacrifice one summer to carefully review policies in place for 25 years doesn’t seem to me to be compelling,” Butner says.
Does Asheville Independent Restaurants oppose food trucks?
The official stance is that, though they want to facilitate the discussion in a manner that benefits everyone, they are not opposed to food trucks. In fact, many AIR-member restaurants claim that they would like to start their own food trucks. “They haven’t endorsed it, but they haven’t opposed it either. They just want to protect the quality of food downtown,” says Glines.
A June 28 statement from AIR seems to support this: “If Asheville intends to embrace food trucks, and more importantly mobile vending, we should do so to ensure we are held as an example – like Madison, Wisc. – for bringing thoughtful and effective definition to the roles and responsibilities of all concerned,” the release reads.
AIR “hopes to play a role in collaborating with all concerned to ensure [that] a viable, healthy food truck community is successful,” it says. “We want to be a part of the process and believe we have demonstrated our commitment to finding proven best practices and making them work for our city.”
Wouldn't there be problems with the trucks taking up already sparse parking?
The current proposal would allow the trucks to park at predetermined spaces on privately owned, non-residential property (not, say, on the side of Lexington Avenue). “I think everyone agrees that roaming or parking on the right-of-way is not the way that Asheville wants to handle this,” says Glines.
The current proposal calls for the trucks to be easily accessible. If the site is next to a residential area, it will have to have an 8-foot-wide buffer, possibly beautified with trees and landscaping. Under these rules, no mobile food vendor would be permitted to vend in a public street, sidewalk or right-of-way.
Who finally decides whether or not we have food trucks at all?
Ultimately, City Council will decide whether or not to approve food trucks in the CBD. The Asheville Downtown Commission is an advisory board — what they recommend will be reviewed by the The Planning and Zoning Commission, which will be presented to City Council. Residents will have the chance to speak at a public hearing, and then Council will take a final vote.
— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at email@example.com