Why doesn't Chapel Hill get food trucks?

Ruby Sinreich's picture

[carne asada is not a crime, saveourtacotrucks.org]Last night while much of OP was intently watching our live online candidate forum for aspiring Aldermen, the Chapel Hill Town Council was discussing proposed new foodtruck regulations. To me they sound very limiting, including provisions that they cannot operate within 100 feet of an open restaurant, that they can only be located on private property, and that the truck and property must both get permits from the Town. Even with these restrictions, WCHL's Elizabeth Friend reported that the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership opposed the change.

This makes it pretty clear to me that the perceived interests of their members is more important to the Chamber of Commerce than the success and sustainability of our local economy. This is especially problematic when you remember that that their members include corporations like Wal-Mart, Duke Energy, Progress Energy, PSNC Energy, Wachovia, Tanger Outlets, Time-Warner Cable, GEICO, Costco, and countless real estate agencies (that spent so much money in 2008 defeating the best proposal Orange County has had to raise tax revenue fairly). If their purpose is primarily to be a club for it's own members benfit, I don't see why the rest of us should be all that concerned about what they think. It's not like they're representing me or thinking about my family's best interests. 

And as for the CHDP's opposition, I am again left thinking they must have a very different idea than I do about what makes an urban area work. It's not sterility or a controlled experience (although our downtown could be a hell of a lot cleaner), it's the sense of life, culture, buzz, combined with activities and products that people want and can afford. Food trucks are a perfect example of this. Given that "a survey of downtown businesses and property owners showed no clear majority for or against foodtrucks in downtown" according to their letter (PDF) to the Town, I am truly baffled at their position.

Perhaps we should all go back and read What we can learn from Durham again...

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Total votes: 6

22 Comments

Business groups are often against free markets

This is a classic case of rent seeking by established businesses who prefer to place limits on competition rather than compete in a more open marketplace. Even though many businesses attest to the value of free markets, in practice they rarely fight for it. Also, you won't see the Art Pope-funded organizations advocate against these food truck restrictions, as they will help new businesses, not established ones.While the food options in downtown Chapel Hill aren't terrible, there are plenty of restaurants that could use a little competition. I understand why restaurant owners would be afraid of new entrants to the market, but Chapel Hill residents should welcome the food trucks. 

John Ager's picture

Two tacos with a side of economic development please

I agree it is classic rent-seeking behavior. But there's also some FUD on this issue. The fact is, food trucks are going after a different segment of the food market, and they pose a minimal threat to established restaurants. The Chamber should show some leadership by accepting and publicizing this. As many others have pointed out, taking a stand against new business and job creation is untenable in this economy. Lex Alexander (3 Cups) gets this - what's the problem with the rest of those guys??Chapel Hill is all about diversity, right? Let's walk the walk. "Chapelboro" has to start being more than a bumpersticker - how about driving the concept forward with a food truck??

Idea: Food Truck Sundays

I just had a thought: what if the town council ran a six-month experiment in which food trucks were only permitted in Chapel Hill on Sundays? Many restaurants in town are closed on Sundays, so they can't complain, and it would be a good test of the system. A truck could set up Saturday night, open for the after-bar crowd, and then keep things running the next day.  Of course, the better option is just to allow food trucks. But Sunday trucks would be a good runner up.

John Ager's picture

Chapelboro - an aspiration, or something to avoid?

Let me explain what I meant by my comment about Chapelboro. I understand the jurisdictional divide between Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but like many residents of both towns I appreciate both places and want them both to develop in an integrated way. Changes to one have such a profound impact on the other that it's critical to seek deeper cooperation, and collaboration, as we grapple collectively with growth and development issues.I know that Chapelboro.com is the new brand for WCHL, but they don't have copyright on the term. What I understand by Chapelboro is simply the aggregation of the towns. I live in a specific place and the Town of Chapel Hill therefore provides my municipal services. But because I live in Chapelboro I can take full advantage of the amenities in Carrboro; and vice versa for a Carrboro resident.   It's possible that some of the opposition to Food Trucks in Chapel Hill is opposition to a different way of buying food. But I would be genuinely curious to know how much of the opposition is really a rejection of Carrboro-ness. Chapel Hill does have a long and noble history of supporting diversity. Can the citizens come to terms with 21st century diversity, which can be untidy, unstructured, and disruptive? If Chapel Hill does not change in ways that revitalize its retail sector, and make the downtown a more vibrant and attractive destination, it will decline, and income disparities will increase.  And yes, a food truck is a retail establishment!

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Opposition

This is aside from your main point, but if you read the letters from residents sent to the Town Council about this, they are all but one in FAVOR of food trucks. The "opposition" is from the protectionist Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Partnership that are looking out for THEIR MEMBERS, not for the good of Chapel Hill. I can't understand why they even have much credibility on this issue given that they are clearly not looking at the interests of Chapel Hill (or ChapelBoro) as a whole, or even the general sustainability of our local economy (which is definitely something that does not respect municipal boundaries).

gercohen's picture

Carrboro merchants opposed W Franklin extension

Back in the early 70's, there was a (DOT I think) proposal to extend West Franklin Street over to South Greensboro Street where Carr Street now is. I remember going to a meeting where Carrboro merchants opposed the extension on the basis that there would be twice as many retail merchants in Carrboro and that would cut down business for the then existing stores.

Roscoe's picture

Legitimate Issue?

 

The restaurants on Franklin, or any other street or mall, sit on real property for
which they or their landlord pay real property taxes. Is fairness an issue when
a truck (owned by someone in Durham) pulls up to a curb, or someone's lot, and
offers food/service that one could get from a nearby restaurant? Assuming the
truck doesn't pay rent for a parking space. Is the Chamber (I'm not member or
fan) acting
protectionist
not in
the interest of Chapel Hill
?

How many empty spaces, where restaurants used to be, do you want? I'm just asking.I don't know why this isn't formatting right, sorry.

 

 

 

Mark Chilton's picture

Free market?

In Carrboro, food trucks have to operate on private property and they have to have an agreement with the property owner (whether rent-paying or not).  If the food trucks can out-compete bricks&mortar restauarants, is that not what capitalism would ideally be all about?

If the playing field was

If the playing field was even then this would be what capitalism is all about, but the fact is the field is not even.  Food trucks do not have to put out the initial dollars for infrastructure improvements that the town code requires and changes every few years.  The trucks are not required to supply grease traps, adhere to town inspections by fire and building inspectors and make costly changes per those inspections or pay fines if an extra extension cord is found.  Trucks are not subject to ADA code which can cost brick and mortar businesses a lot of money in compliance and/or fines.  The actual application of health codes and inspections is spotty at best, does anyone really drive to mebane to inspect the kitchen a lot of trucks post as their prep kitchen?  My bet would be no since it is a different county and the inspectors are over worked and understaffed in Orange county already.  There are no parking requirements trucks must meet and they actually reduce the amount of available parking when they park their trucks. The list goes on!  I am amazed that the mayor of Carrboro would pose a question like this without acknowledging the obvious inequities in the application of codes and regulations while trumpeting capitalism! Way to not support the businesses that have grown our town and paid into the tax base and at the same time support a popular movement that does not necessarily  provide additional tax revenue to our county or town but sure does add to the hip factor. All that said, I like food trucks but believe they need to be monitored and regulated to ensure that our town/county gets its revenue and that the playing field is leveled a little better. I am more aggravated by Mark's flippant comments than by the pressence of trucks in Carrboro or Chapel Hill, which don't really bug me at all.

Dan Coleman's picture

Situation at Johnny's

Tyler, your point is born out very clearly in the current situation at Johnny's where the food truck can still operate but she is unable to re-open the business without meeting code. The rare, flip side of the coin, is the case of Stone's Throw Pizza who are pretty much out of business (except for private parties) because they cannot get their mobile brick oven permited. I do think Roscoe raises a valid issue about property tax: the presence of a food truck amounts to an increase in the commercial value of a property but that is not reflected in the assesment of the tax collector. In Carrboro, a restaurant pays a privilege tax of $45 and a mobile food vendor $25. I believe this is an area where a modest step toward "leveling the playing field" can be made.

Dan, good example,  but I

Dan, good example,  but I thought it was more a zoning issue at Johnny's than a code issue. From my understanding, the zoning is pretty specific about what is allowed in that space due to certain grandfather clauses. I grew up around the corner from Johnny's so it holds great memories for me and stilll live on the street so I would like to see something positive happen there.  It is a fine line of commercial in residential that must be threaded in that location.

John Ager's picture

In answer to Roscoe: No

What I said. Even if the food is ostensibly the same (and it often
isn't), the restaurant offers a whole different package to the customer.
Seating, ambience, service, etc. The value proposition just isn't the same. Food trucks are disruptive (to markets, not to the streets). Restaurant operators should deal with it - but not by trying to limit customer choice. 

James Barrett's picture

Lee Storrow

Lee told me his personal opinion of food trucks after I ran into him at early voting this AM.  We'll see if that's the same as his campaign opinion on Sunday!

Taxes

It's in the interest of C.H. to tax sales of prepared food.  When you get a sandwich or hot bar to go from Whole Foods, e.g., you pay a little tax on it, and about a third of that goes to Orange County.  Which adds up!

One meal per stomach, so if I buy food to go from a food truck, no matter how much its presence adds to the Chapel Hill urban experience, I don't buy it from an establishment that sustains town and county by its land and sales taxes.  And yet we still need traffic lights, deputies, fire engines, debt  payments and even Town Hall, so reducing tax receipts from the aforementioned establishments means property taxes must go up to compensate.

Deborah Fulghieri

Food trucks do not equal restaurants

I would have hoped that the Chamber would support food trucks as a business operating locally.  They would also have an opportunity to push for local commisary use.  Instead, they seem to fighting to protect restaurants from a non-threat.  A restaurant offers seating, service, and a broader array of menu items (resulting in a group of vegetarians and non-vegetarians having no problem going out together, for example).  A food truck would offer quick service, specialty food items, and lower price, but must also contend with inclement weather-heat, cold, rain, and snow-that would tend to decrease business.  I just can't imagine a conversation of "where do you want to eat tonight-food truck or restaurant?" happening! Del Snow

James Barrett's picture

depends on the restaurant

Food trucks are no competition to *many* restaurants. But on the low end of restaurants, where you're not paying for great ambience, or you were planning to do take-out anyway, there certainly could be that conversation.  Not to mention today, there's just the curiosity factor with food trucks, so they get a bump at the expense of restaurant alternatives.  That will phase out over time.

Anita Badrock's picture

How is a food truck parked

How is a food truck parked in downtown Chapel Hill for 15 hours a week and owned by a guy who lives in Fuquay Varina any more local than a  Target built  in Carrboro and and owned by shareholders, some of whom live in Orange County?