In January of 2012, after more than a year of debate, discussion, and deliberation about food trucks in Chapel Hill, the Town Council finally passed an ordinance to allow them in our community.
But then no food trucks came.
I’ve spent the last two months talking to food truck owners, local businesses, advocates, and town staff about our ordinance. While there is still disagreement, it seems clear that there is one thing we can all agree on: Our food truck ordinance is not working. I think this is because we didn’t understand the regional economy of the food truck industry in the Triangle. In Durham, food trucks thrive because the community has embraced the food truck business model, and empty parking lots in downtown become natural gathering places for this model of food delivery.
Chapel Hill feared that opening the door to food trucks would provide too much competition to brick and mortar restaurants. We were also concerned that the number of food truck applicants would overwhelm our staff’s ability to review and inspect them. No matter how we write our ordinance, I don’t believe either of those things will happen.
Much of the debate over food trucks has focused on downtown, yet the business opportunity for food truck owners downtown is limited. Food trucks go where there is no food. America’s Foodiest Small Town doesn’t have room (physically or in the market) for food trucks downtown during lunch or dinner. Instead, food trucks can benefit our community by filling in gaps in open space on the outer limits of our community and bringing much needed customer traffic.
I petitioned Council on Monday to move up the review of our ordinance. I’m glad we are not waiting six months to discuss something that almost everyone uniformly agrees has been unsuccessful. I’ve talked to multiple food truck owners over the course of the last two months, and the universal criticism I’ve heard is that the “when business is booming in Durham and RTP, why should I pay a significantly higher fee to come to Chapel Hill?” In this difficult economy, it is important that we support entrepreneurs and folks just starting out in their careers. We should support residents who are taking financial risks in this difficult time. The owner of the Chirba Chirba Dumpling Truck lives in our town, yet finds our ordinance too restrictive to operate in Chapel Hill. Wouldn't it be great to one day have a Chirba Chriba restaurant on Franklin Street?
Since Raleigh welcomed food trucks in September 2011, they have not been deluged with permit requests. We should explore making our fee structure in line with Raleigh’s on a trial basis. One of the major reasons for Chapel Hill’s higher fee structure was concern about the cost of staff time for inspections. This is not necessarily a concern for safety and health (that responsibility lies with Orange County), but concern that owners might not be complying with specific restrictions related to how and where food trucks can operate. The reality is that Chapel Hill is not likely to face an influx of food trucks anytime soon, and inspections are not likely to overwhelm our staff. According to Becky Cascio, owner of Pie Pushers food truck, “the trucks that will hypothetically seriously consider paying the fees and eventually entering Chapel Hill are going to be those trucks that follow those rules to a "T". Raleigh has only had one enforcement issue, which was quickly resolved. Much can be accomplished by pro-actively educating food truck owners about our ordinance when they apply for a permit to operate in Chapel Hill.
Of course, it is a real concern in our community that food trucks could jeopardize certain businesses that we’ve come to love. While they don’t threaten all restaurants, they do pose a potential threat to fast and convenient restaurants found on East Franklin. Since food trucks are unlikely to thrive in downtown due to space limitations, and it would be reasonable to ban food trucks from operating in Town Center 1 Zoning District.
Food trucks support entrepreneurs, provide excitement and energy to our community, help define urban spaces, and have brought national attention to the Triangle. As leaders in our community, we are thrilled when new businesses open in empty storefronts, so why shouldn’t we be as excited when an empty parking lot becomes a gathering space where residents break bread together? When we re-evaluate this ordinance in the fall, I hope we can find a way to truly bring food trucks to Chapel Hill.