Why is there so little street food in Asheville?

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.


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27 thoughts on “Why is there so little street food in Asheville?

  1. Chris

    Go Mackensey! I’ve wondered the same thing after seeing what other cities such as Portland and Austin are doing in terms of food trucks. The food is amazing and affordable.

  2. KPCommunications

    Mackensy – Regarding this point: [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.] ….I’m not an expert on the regulations, or whether they seem fair, but you and your readers should be aware that Blue Ridge Food Ventures has mobile food vendors that use the FDA-inspected commercial kitchen, which is located on the AB Tech Enka campus. BRFV is more than artisan food-makers such as UliMana chocolates and graduate Lusty Monk Mustard…it’s also bakers, caterers, a wintertime CSA (Winter Sun Farms), gourmet-to-go, and food carts! I’ll be happy to help you connect with Mary Lou Surgi to get details. ~ Kathi Petersen

    • brad.martin84

      I would love to know more about the information that you have. If or when you have time, I’d love to speak with you.

  3. reasonable

    Asheville is a tiny, TINY city compared to your examples. There just aren’t enough people to support throngs of street food vendors. I live downtown and observe this city daily. Justin, the Burrito Bandido, does well on Page Ave. How many more carts do you think could survive around here?

    On the other hand, imagine if no rules were in place and any and everyone could set up a food cart or operate a roach coach. That’d be fairly comical to watch who started up and how long it took for them to “rotate out” of the business.

  4. So, what is the total cost to open a lemonade stand in the city of Asheville for one day? Numbers, please.

  5. LOKEL

    Funny how the City has these rules that apply to the local folks who might want to start a business, but then these “laws” are tossed aside when a festival rolls around …. and the out of towners bring their funnel cake trucks!

  6. Erock

    I have recently moved from Austin, Texas to Asheville and love it. I do miss the thriving food cart culture in Austin. The food carts add diversity, interest and entertainment to the city creating a sense of community and well, “counter culture”. There are many kinds of offerings from vietnamese to vegan. Asheville has good food choices but could use a little more “counter culture” and in my opinion is a fertile field for growing a food cart business.

  7. Dionysis

    “So, what is the total cost to open a lemonade stand in the city of Asheville for one day? Numbers, please.”

    Starting your own business?

  8. UnaffiliatedVoter

    The Independent Restaurant Association MAY have some influence on restrictions to protect their interests and I dont blame them if they do!

  9. David M

    Asheville does lack food cart vendors, and this is a good thing for the city. Sorry Mackensy, but here’s why:

    1. As a cook at a downtown restaurant in Asheville, I take issue with the backwardness of the phrase, “gourmet mobile food.” Street food vendors sell junk, albeit tasty junk sometimes, but still junk. Additive junk is not the diversification Asheville residents desire.

    2. Half of the attraction of downtown Asheville in 2010 is our RESTAURANT economy. It is already unmatchable in diversity compared to the surrounding area. In a turbulent economic period, independently-owned restaurants in Asheville are taking a financial blow. If you put a hot dog cart outside of Cats and Dawgs, or a smoothie-maker outside of Green Sage, it will only make times harder for workers and owners alike.

    3. Yes, the laws are obviously outdated and bizarre, but I worry about the sanitation and safety of food (particularly anything with meat/dairy) that stews in the steam compartment of a meal wagon all day. Do they even have health and safety inspections for food carts?

  10. Suzy Phillips

    @David M
    First and foremost, the new and improved gourmet mobile food trucks are not your old time roach coaches that you are thinking of! We are not talking festival/carny food here, yes we are talking gourmet food, it does exist and furthermore using local, organic meats, dairy and produce, provided by your local farmers, not sysco, this helps the local economy grow, putting our money right back in the community. No one is serving junk or intends on serving junk that is not what this huge movement is all about!
    None of it would be stewing and steaming in a compartment all day, everything is cooked on site per order, just like a brick and mortar. Mobile food trucks have everything a restaurant kitchen has, from the rootie to the tootie: hoods, sinks, refrigeration, burners, fryers, griddles and grills. They would have to get certified from the health department, just like restaurants do. No one is just going to park right outside an existing restaurant, that is just wrong! we are talking about a designated area like pack square to park in, or an empty parking lot or a space the vendor can rent. If people and restauranteurs are worried about it getting out of hand then put a cap on how many permits you issue and be choosy on the diversity of the food, something the downtown restaurants should have done with all the sushi restaurants downtown, I mean that is monopoly right there!
    I am a waitress at 2 restaurants who is trying to open a restaurant for the past 2 years and no one is lending money, no one, not the SBA not your local banks and certainly not the corporate banks, so what do you propose I do? work as a server all my life? This is a great opportunity for entrepreneurship, it’s the American dream, so don’t deny me that right!

  11. Mackensy Lunsford

    Here’s a great blog about Portland’s mobile food scene: http://www.foodcartsportland.com/

    David: Why does mobile food mean junk food? Also, yes, there are existing health and safety regulations for food carts/trucks — they must be inspected by the health department.

    I agree, however, about the need to come up with rules that would help to prevent a situation like smoothie carts being set up outside of the Green Sage, to use your example.

    If handled correctly, I believe that having street food in Asheville could benefit the economy of the city.

    I rather like this quote from the Portland food cart blog:

    “With limited hours, lack of indoor (and sometimes lack of any) seating and small menus, they complement rather than compete with full-scale restaurants. Food carts help create a vibrant downtown and central city by bringing what planning geeks call a “social fabric on the street” which is great in cultural terms, but in economic terms also attracts other spenders, retail outlets, and restaurants and cafes.”

    Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

  12. ginny daley

    The food culture in Asheville is fabulous and food carts would simply add to the diversity of foodways, price points & convenience (not just in downtown, mind you). Beside allowing for new businesses to start small, it would also allow for existing resturants to test the waters of expansion.

    For those of us who’d like to see more food carts in Asheville, what can we do? Is there a group working to change ordinances or offer advice to new businesses?

  13. walker aderhold

    Thanks for all of the information Mackensy. I have been trying to do food carts around town for a good 5 years now. The rules are backward but the folks at the health dept. know that folks want this type of thing around town and will work with folks on the rules. Do city festivals like i do from time to time. It gets your name out there and who knows what can happen. see all you folks at LAAFF on sunday.

  14. golden bamboo

    I agree the Asheville area has plenty of space for mobile food trucks. I personally look forward to seeing more of it!
    Yes, the festival circuit is a great way to get your name and your food out there. There was so much incredible food around the festivals this summer. Did you check out the Falafel Brothers? I hear they are getting a truck this year. Can’t wait!

  15. I’d say, if it truly is regulated correctly for food safety, why not? Personally, I’m not much for food carts (due to them usually offering “junk food”), but I know a lot of others are.

  16. Some of the best food – or most real at least – that I have had in my travels has been late night street meats or veggie bonanzas. There is a huge market for this, especially between midnight and 3 am, when a well selected street corner could yield economic delight for the creative vendor. I’m talking about more than hot dogs here, real options… especially authentic tacos! The best taco I had in Mexico was a late night street vendor who agreed to serve me after he knew I was not from Arizona. Sweet succulent meat from the street… how you coated my alcohol oiled belly with the fire of life and powered me up to return to the all-night pool party!

  17. The Trolls Troll

    Man, I would really love a falafel sandwich right about now. But you know what I would really love? To give everyone a big, warm, fuzzy hug.

  18. Mister Blister

    Restaurant owners always hate food carts and “taco trucks” because they offer inexpensive and nutritious options for consumers. But so many places are really overpriced — such as Mamacita’s where a “gringo burrito” and drink will run you over $10. Maybe a little competition will make these places lower their prices to reasonable levels (in San Francisco, which has much higher rents, you can get an authentic, yummy burrito for under $6). Asheville should get with the times and allow more of these in the city, or perhaps a “mobile food zone”. I do think it is wise to have the food prepared off-site in an inspected food facility as not many food carts have running water… right?

  19. Mister Blister

    And just a note to people who evidently think of cotton candy and funnel cakes when they hear “food carts” this is not what the rest of us desire in Asheville. We are talking about great, international cuisine served as it is in many other counties. Thai food, barbeque, Mexican, curry, gumbo, etc. etc. This is what we need — not more hot dog vendors, or breaded, deep fried, frozen crap-on-a-stick — for a price that competes with the dreaded fast food joints that blight parts of this fine city like cancerous tumors.


  20. Suzy Phillips

    Well all, I am working hard on this to pass some laws for mobile food vending and I will be offering healthy Lebanese street food made with organic and local produce and meats! We are talking falafels, the real deal, kababs, shawarma, soups and salads, I can’t wait to feed you Asheville!
    Mister Blister, a mobile truck or trailer is required by the health dept to have a 3 compartment sink, hoods for fryers and grills, same set up as a restaurant, so everything can be prepared fresh per order in a certified kitchen, so it is much safer and cleaner then food sitting in warmers for hours. You can follow me on facebook Asheville’s gourmet food trucks and twitter GQCstreetfood.
    Thanks to Mackensy for all her support and help!

  21. Bandido's Burritos

    Well I had some super great Ideas in the beginning before I got shot down by the health department saying that you are not allowed in NC to assemble anything on site. UNLESS its a hot dog. But whats the difference between grilling a hot dog and smashing lemons for juice and grilling Carne Asada and squirting a lime on it? Its a protection barrier for the health department to keep their necks out of the sling. If someone were to get sick from these (approved) mobile kitchens then the local health department will be up the creek with the state health department for issuing the permits. Thats what I picked up on during the whole process of obtaining my permits. To really annoy us all During Bellchere and other downtown festivals its ok to assemble something for a day or three. But not on a regular daily basis which is truly a slap in the face for people like myself who are forced to prepare somewhere else and transport hot. which isn’t a bacteria fest if you have the proper equipment. Another thing that bothers me is there are food trucks in AVL and I’m positive most of them have no inspections what so ever but they are chipping away at legit business profits like mine here and there who actually have all said permits and are inspected regularly on site and off. In the end all I have to say is My hands are tied. I bring the best quality product I can to you guys in this awesome town considering the limitations I am presented with. If we can get this rediculous hoop jumping festival cleared up I am sure you will see some killer stuff hitting the streets not only from Bandido’s but many talented individuals in this town. Keep pushing everyone.

  22. Scott Anderson

    I just moved here from Austin, TX and was hoping to start up a vegan food cart after seeing a friend do rather well in Austin. After looking into the laws here, however, it looks like that will be on hold for a while… I would love to be able to provide fresh, delicious, cheap vegan food to the people of AVL without having to go through the nightmare of opening a full restaurant or transporting pre-made food every day back and forth. As far as I know all trucks in Austin are inspected just like a regular restaurant and are subject to all the same sanitary laws, why can’t the same thing happen here in AVL? I wonder if it isn’t a hidden agenda of the local restaurants/business owners as well as an aesthetic issue of having mobile trucks all over town.

  23. scott johnson

    I am having a mobile food truck being built right now. I have contacted the city of Asheville and Buncombe County officials on proper permitting and licensing. The Truck is called The Dream Cafe and will be on the streets surrounding the Asheville area. Look for us in January 2012.

  24. scott johnson

    Oops, The Dream Cafe Truck coming January 2011. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

  25. branyon colvin

    I have a moble BBQ kitchen and i would love to be able to go down town and set up. I have been a chef for years and started my business a year ago. health regulations make it very dificult to do business in nc. My website is http://www.colvinscatering.com you can also find me on facebook. look for me soon on the streets of Asheville i hope. Branyom Colvin Colvin’s Catering & The Notorious PIG.

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