Food trucks are taking it to the streets everywhere. They're all over cities like Austin and local-foods mecca Portland, Ore. — a city with sensibilities much like our own. Hungry diners can choose from a veritable stable of mobile vendors that offer everything from authentic asada tacos to Vietnamese Pho. The trucks are cheap to keep, for the most part, and the street-food purveyors pass on the savings with their oftentimes exotic offerings.
It's inevitable in a food town like Asheville that mobile food vendors would motor onto the scene. We have a wealth of talented cooks trying to make a living, while everyone else is trying not to spend too much of their own cash. But slow your roll — a number of laws currently discourage the moveable feast.
"Philosophically, we just aren't ready for it," says City Planner Shannon Tuch. Simply put, food trucks are not allowed in downtown Asheville under city ordinance — at least not yet. There are standards already put in place allowing, yet limiting, the number of push-carts in the city — the hot dog and burrito vendors that you already see. No laws exist to regulate the existence of food trucks; until now, there simply hasn't been enough interest.
Pimp my food truck
Enter Suzy Phillips. Her passion is food, specifically that of her homeland. Phillips fled war-torn Lebanon at age 15 with her family. Once in the states, her native cuisine tied her family to fonder memories of home and brought them together at the table.
Last year, Phillips set out to open Zeytoon, a Lebanese deli and market, and secured a number of investors.
Then, the bottom fell out. One of the financial backers, citing a troubled economy, pulled away from the venture. Phillips looked to secure other loans, but was unable to find much. "I'm a fighter," she says. "But I tried to open a brick-and-mortar [restaurant] for two years. I tried to get loans, I tried to get investors. When the economy crashed, I lost everything and was back to square one."
Phillips next set her sights on opening a falafel truck. The truck concept is a much more affordable alternative for a potential entrepreneur than a brick and mortar restaurant in this economy, though it still isn't cheap.
A truck already up-fitted for food service, or "pimped out," as Phillips puts it, can cost upwards of $80,000. That's in comparison to than the $250,000 investment that a brick and mortar restaurant can require. "But if I have ten to 20 percent of that already, says Phillips, "it's easier for me to get a loan as a small business." The hurdles to getting her own piece of the pie, Phillips notes, are many.
According to Phillips, she's met with resistance to her ideas from downtown business owners and some city officials, based on fears of litter and loitering. These are all real concerns, she notes, but they can be addressed with a series of firm rules regarding street vending.
Phillips also says that some detractors bristle at the specter of food trucks driving around downtown, jamming up the narrow streets with traffic. Tuch says that public safety ordinances already prevent food trucks from vending on city streets, and always will — making such worries a non-issue.
To that end, should food trucks become allowable within city limits, they'll have to set up shop in a specified area, like a parking lot, equipped with running water and other infrastructure necessary to support the mini-businesses. "It basically comes down to whether or not this is something that Asheville wants to do," Tuch says. "We're stretched to our maximum in resources," she says. "The question is, do the benefits outweigh the costs?"
A matter of competition
Joe Minicozzi, interim executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association and former urban planner, doesn't understand the rationale behind having to equip the food truck location with facilities like water and bathrooms.
"These trucks are currently allowed outside of the central business district without running water. How is it that as soon as I leave the CBD, magically I can get away [without the infrastructure]. Are people dying in the parking lots in West Asheville? Where's the public safety issue?" Minicozzi goes as far as to say that some of the rules and regulations seem a bit arbitrary.
And indeed, the city’s rules regulating street food can seem a bit strange. At this point in time, no food-cart vendors are allowed to serve past ten, and all food must be prepared off-site, meaning no grilling on location allowed. That’s one of many issues for Phillips to tackle down the road. Right now, her primary obstacle lies in the perceived competition food trucks would have with existing restaurants who provide investments to the community in the form of taxes and employment.
Tuch confirms that the competition concern is indeed a major hurdle. "Downtown, there's already a limitation on food vending in an effort to support the existing restaurants. Since those businesses are paying taxes, employing people, there is the desire to support them in that."
Tuch also points out that downtown restaurants take part in civic events and fundraisers and otherwise add to the tourist economy that supports Asheville. "They aren't just making food," she says.
Tuch also notes that outside of the downtown area, food trucks can indeed be arranged. However, a food truck outside city limits misses the foot traffic — arguably the whole point of a food truck.
A free-market system
"Carts depend on foot traffic. That's what they're built to service,” says Mark Rosenstein, former owner of The Market Place in downtown Asheville. Rosenstein has fought his own food-service battles. In the 90s, he worked to push through ordinances that didn't allow sidewalk dining because of similar concerns like those surrounding food trucks — namely, loitering and litter.
"I have not heard a real argument that says, reasonably, why you can't do it," Rosenstein says. "Health concerns, totally valid." he says, though he acknowledges that the same safety standards that are applied to existing restaurants can be applied to mobile food vendors.
As for the competition argument? Restaurants might need to learn to adapt, he says.
"If you're going to work in a free-enterprise system, then it should be free-enterprise." Rosenstein cites the Market Place as a prime example. "I was trying to shift my concept and my position in the market because the market was changing. Did I like doing that? No. But if I was going to stay in business and compete, I was going to have to change."
Street food could alter the culinary landscape for the better, he says. "From a diner's point of view, if I can get a really great sandwich for four bucks and sit on a park bench or at the City-County plaza and enjoy some music and street food, why not?" says Rosenstein. "Why should city or county government prevent a business from offering that sort of opportunity?"
Playing by the rules
Kevin Westmoreland does not own a business downtown, but knows what the struggle is like for a food entrepreneur. He opened the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village several years ago with partner Joe Scully.
Westmoreland is also a member of the Asheville Independent Restaurant organization, a group that holds some major stake in the local restaurant game — which means that gaining their support for food trucks is a nearly essential step in Phillip's cause. She says that AIR has been mostly supportive, though some members are still resistant.
"We're supportive of any restaurant or any business that has to play by the same rules that we play by," says Westmoreland.
However, it's clear that there are some concerns within the group. "There are [restaurant owners] downtown that have million-dollar mortgages and pay taxes … but everyone's still fighting for a limited number of customers," he says. "If you put ten trucks downtown, you're really putting ten small restaurants in the downtown area." While competition is obviously great for the consumer, he says, "When you cut up the pie in more pieces, people will fall by the wayside. It really means that everyone has to step up their game a little bit."
Being that profit margins are so slim, especially for independent restaurants, offering stellar service and food may not be enough for a restaurant to survive in an already saturated market, Westmoreland emphasizes. "But that's just part of competition. Especially if you can't change and improve, maybe you might not be in business next year."
Westmoreland notes that it seems like the mobile food idea is catching on everywhere. "None of us want a repeat of the cities that are doing it incorrectly, but I think we all feel like it's coming, unless the city simply says that we can never have trucks. I think we all just want it done in a way that makes sense for everybody."
What's next for Phillips? Westmoreland says that AIR, the Asheville Downtown Association and the potential food truck owners will have a roundtable discussion, look at existing models in other cities and come up with rules that everyone can agree on. But, that may be a long time coming, Westmoreland says. It will likely be up to those who want food carts to push the issue. "We have our own kettle of fish to fry," he says, adding, "but we would love the trucks to be members of AIR."
A piece of the pie
Phillips says she understands why a restaurant owner who's made a substantial investment would be eager to protect it. But she feels she deserves a chance at her own piece of the pie.
"Listen, I didn't pick my circumstances. This is something I have to deal with. I'm not going to boo-hoo cry about how poor I am, and how poor my family is and how we lost everything in the war. Our lives are still here, and I'm thankful for that," she says. But she adds that the entrepreneurship should not be such an unreachable goal. She hopes that everyone can come to an agreement that would allow the dreams of potential entrepreneurs to become a reality.
"My passion for living and having my own business still exists, and I feed on it. My passion for food plays a huge part in my life. To look at people, see the contentment in their eyes and their bellies — I want that. And this is the only way that I can give it right now."
She says that she's not looking to get rich, just sustain herself and her family without having to wait tables. "I want to take care of my mother. She took care of me all of my life. That's the least I can do for her," she says. "I'm not looking for wealth, I'm looking for sustainability and supporting my community and farmers. It's about the foodtopia of Asheville."
In other words, she’d like to see the vibrant food culture of Asheville become even more of a foodie destination.
The long road ahead
Although the Asheville Downtown Association doesn't have an official standpoint on the issue, Minicozzi would like to initiate discussion in the community.
"We're in a holding pattern until we hear very clearly from AIR what they want. It's going to take some effort on Suzy's part to change the public perception. This is going to be a long battle for her," Minicozzi says. "I don't think it's fair, and I think it's pathetic that it takes our community this long to get together on stuff. I'll think about it. Maybe there's a way that we can expedite it — maybe hold a public forum to try to get the dialogue moving faster."
Minicozzi does seem to have a personal perspective. Fresh from a trip to Portland, he's still energized by the food and city culture he witnessed there. "I hope that this works out,” he says. “I hope that we get more diversity in our downtown — diversity in price ranges and products, diversity in food that we can get. Other downtowns have that vitality. I was just in Portland last week and saw them all over the place and the city wasn't dying. There were plenty of restaurants and plenty of food carts. If they can work it out, we can work it out."
To learn more about Asheville Street Food, visit Phillips’ Facebook page, “Asheville's Gourmet Street Food Trucks.”
— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org