Street food. It’s everywhere that people want a quick, cheap meal. I’ve seen it in the streets of Egypt, where vendors peddle ful (fava beans), ta’miyya (Egyptian falafel) and the delicious carbohydrate-bomb koshari for pennies. I’ve seen it in Costa Rica, where a man with a machete, waiting on a waterfall trail, split a young coconut so I could drink the agua de pipa inside. It’s all over the streets of New York — knishes, burritos, what have you. Taco trucks cruise the streets of L.A. and Portland is a mecca of mobile eats. They’ve got Thai food, chili, Turkish food, you name it. The city even has a festival celebrating food carts.
So, what’s with Asheville? Sure, we’ve got a few options, ranging from hot dogs to burritos … oh wait, that’s it. Why, with a food culture as interesting and vibrant as ours, do we not have more options?
That’s what I’m trying to determine. I’m meeting with Suzy Phillips of Gypsy Queen Cuisine this evening to discuss what seems like an awful lot of strange rules surrounding the mobile-food business.
Phillips, you see, wants to open a falafel truck, but she’s running into a few hurdles. She isn’t the only one. This e-mail that I sent to one of our City Council members can help fill you in on the details:
“I’m hoping to figure out how to facilitate some changes in our food vendor policies around these parts. A number of aspiring entrepreneurs have approached me with issues they have had in getting started with opening a mobile food cart…
One of the hopeful food vendors that I recently spoke to said that ‘many people feel discouraged about opening their own food cart here. Opening a mobile food unit is a relatively affordable way to start one’s own business and is oftentimes a stepping stone to larger pursuits. To me, the whole idea of being a mobile kitchen lends a certain sense of being able to feed people when and where they need to be fed.’
These are her hurdles toward doing so:
1. ‘Currently, to set up on city property, you have to be within a certain size restriction to operate, which I completely understand for tight spaces with barely a sidewalk to situate on, but there are city parks and green-spaces where a slightly larger unit could work.’
2. ‘You can’t sell food after 10 p.m. with a temporary use permit, no matter if you’re on city or private property. Honestly, a lot of times, the folks out and about after 10 p.m. could use a few late night bites.’
3. ‘A permit is required in advance, citing when and where you will be, a permit that takes a few days to secure. Where’s the mobility?’
My note on this: This is a good point. I’ve seen articles in the New York Times about food trucks in L.A. and NYC who are mobile, certified and inspected businesses who constantly change locales, tweeting about their whereabouts. As my friend says, this ‘incites a sense of community based on the idea that food can be inspiring and exciting and not cost an arm and a leg.’
4. All cooking must be done off-site in a certified, inspected restaurant or professional kitchen and then transferred to the mobile site to be held for service. This makes little sense. Couldn’t a mobile food cart be inspected and graded by the health department as well? Cooking, then transporting food gives ample opportunity for bacteria to spread, and isn’t necessarily — by any means — safer than cooking on site. I don’t want to speculate, but I guess I will anyway… is this an outdated law proposed by local restaurants?
My friend also points out that, with a few changes, ‘Asheville could be a more diverse culinary experience than it already is by supporting gourmet mobile food. It can also give future restauranteurs the confidence needed that his/her concept can be a success with a little hard work and support from local government. Cities across this country have exploded into the food cart scene, and there is absolutely no reason why Asheville shouldn’t be a part of this movement.’
She continues: ‘Walking up and being able to grab a quick bite to eat without much commitment, conversing with a stranger while waiting for your tacos, sharing a picnic table over lunch, these are things that bring people together. Asheville brings people together. It fits. I don’t know what the solution is, but i have a couple of ideas. Change the lingo of your permits to fit the times, and recognize what we motivated folks want to do with our passions and support us a little more by enabling, rather than making it extremely difficult to pull off a relatively simple concept.’”
That’s the end of my admittedly long e-mail. Our elected officials are surprisingly patient.
Certainly, there are laws that are put into place for the health and safety of other diners. However, some of these laws seem almost backwards — why, for example, does all food need to be prepared off-site? What exactly is the problem with a certified and inspected mobile kitchen?
The response from the city on this matter has been helpful and informative. One city official reminded me that laws like these aren’t necessarily set in stone. Did you know, for example, that sidewalk dining was not allowed in Asheville not very long ago?
The people of Asheville deserve to have street food, and young entrepreneurs deserve a chance to provide it. I don’t want to see local restaurants suffer, of course — and I don’t think they will. People that work downtown and aren’t exactly rich — like most of us here at Xpress — would like to have more options for the occasional quick, cheap lunch. Those that want to sit in an air conditioned or heated restaurant (my guess is that this covers the majority of diners) will continue to do so, whether the carts are there or not. Portland, like I said, has a large amount of food carts — and the local restaurants are doing just fine.
I’ll keep you posted as I learn more.
What do you think? Do you want more street food in Asheville? Or is it damaging to our local restaurants? Weigh in.