Mobile vendors finding permanent homes in WNC
As the food truck fad filters into counties west of Asheville, local governments are trying to find a fair balance between encouraging entrepreneurship and protecting their brick-and-mortar food establishments.
SEE ALSO: Food trucks offer different flavors
Making mobile vendors more stationary is one way towns have chosen to deal with the new influx of culinary entrepreneurs. As long as they can find a steady flow of customers, the vendors don’t seem to miss the nomadic lifestyle food trucks are accustomed to. Some food truck vendors have hitched their wagons to craft breweries, while others have found a few reliable spots within their county.
Municipalities that want to offer something new and faddish for tourists and locals are developing regulations to allow food trucks while trying to protect established brick-and-mortar restaurants.
After heated debate, Canton recently passed an ordinance that allows food trucks within the town limits, but only on private property.
Franklin’s planning board was recently tasked with studying the issue and bringing back recommendations for regulating when and where food trucks can operate in town.
Franklin Mayor Bob Scott said he isn’t against the idea of having food trucks, but he can see how it could become a problem if the town doesn’t plan ahead.
“Several towns have gotten overwhelmed by them by not looking at the issues — they’re being reactive instead of proactive,” Scott said.
That was definitely the case in Asheville several years ago as mobile food vendors fought for the ability to set up in the central business district. The dispute between mobile vendors and brick and mortar restaurants went on for some time before the city council changed the ordinance. Until 2011, food trucks were banned from the downtown area; then, only 10 were allowed at one time; now, any number of food trucks can set up as long as they have an approved lease on a specific site.
Food truck fairness
Scott said he brought up the issue of food trucks at a recent board meeting to make sure Franklin looks ahead before it becomes a problem. Franklin has only a few semi-permanent food trucks, but several more set up during downtown festivals.
“How fair would it be for a food truck to pull up within a block of a restaurant that is there year-round paying city taxes and taking the bad with the good?” he said. “While the food truck takes all the goods and is gone. I’m not against entrepreneurs — that’s not the case — I just want to make sure we look at all the pros and cons.”
Restaurants in Canton made the same argument to town officials when the board of aldermen was considering allowing food trucks. Though Canton has a limited number of restaurants — and wants to boost options for tourists — established eateries felt threatened by the concept.
Angel Stockton, owner of Black Bear Café, spoke against allowing food trucks at all — even on private property. She claimed they don’t contribute to the economic development of the town because they don’t provide many jobs and don’t pay property taxes. Lower overhead can lead to mobile vendors being able to offer lower prices than restaurants.
But mobile vendors will tell you that starting a food truck business is not a cheap endeavor. Chuck Rector, owner of Blue Ridge BBQ food truck based in Haywood County, said buying a food truck could cost up to $100,000 depending on how big you need it to be. It can be even more if you buy a trailer like he did and convert it to fit your needs. Rector’s barbecue trailer even has space for his smoker in the back.
“We bought our bare trailer and put it together like I wanted it — it was very tough,” he said. “I would commend any restaurant for doing what we had to do.”
While Rector’s trailer is large enough to be its own commissary — a place to store food, wash dishes and get clean water — other vendors have additional expenses that come with having a separate commissary.
Tina Tuten, owner of Fat Belly’s, which is based in Canton, was paying rent on her commissary building long before she even knew for sure she would be able to operate in town. She rented a building in Canton to serve as her commissary and operates the truck out of the parking lot. Paying rent each month on top of buying the truck and fixing it up has been a major investment for her.
That isn’t even including all the permitting costs associated with operating a food truck.
Food trucks like Cosmic Carry-out and A Fork in the Road have found fairly permanent locations at Innovation Brewing in Sylva and Lazy Hiker Brewing in Franklin, respectively. But they are also playing rent to the breweries. Cosmic Carry-out uses Innovation’s facilities as their required commissary while A Fork in the Road acts as its own commissary.
Lindsay Kent, owner of A Fork in the Road, said she understands the concerns from restaurants and the town’s desire to regulate food trucks.
“There is definitely a need for some kind of permit process so there is some kind of control over where people park — even though we’re sheltered from that because of our agreement with the brewery,” she said. “It makes sense to deal with problems before they come up.”
Kent agrees that food truck vendors don’t have as many financial burdens as restaurant owners. On the other hand, she said, mobile vendors also face many challenges that restaurants don’t, including being limited by space, having to have an off-site kitchen for back-up and having to relocate to find customers.
“No, we don’t have the overhead but trucks can be expensive depending on what it takes to get it to set up and running,” she said.
Kent said restaurants shouldn’t be afraid of a little competition from food trucks. With limited unique food options in town, more variety is always a plus for residents and tourists. Also, sometimes people will want to sit down in a restaurant for a quick meal and sometimes they’ll want to sit outside the brewery and have a quick bite.
“When something new comes in, you have to step up your game, so I think there is room for both,” she said.
Deciding to downsize
Restaurants may feel like food truck vendors are cheating the system, but there is a reason these entrepreneurs moved to a mobile kitchen. They couldn’t afford the rent or taxes, staff and the hassles that go with running a full-time restaurant.
Rector ran Blue Ridge BBQ out of a Main Street storefront in Waynesville for several years, but business just wasn’t consistent enough to keep it going. Now he and his wife Wendy set up for a few hours at a festival or a brewery and make as much as they would in an entire day.
“But the nice thing now is we can run the trailer just like a restaurant but we don’t have the employees, large bills and landlords to worry about,” he said.
He’s also found success serving at festivals from here all the way to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and lunch to employees at the ConMet plant in Beaverdam.
Kent, who has a culinary arts degree and worked in the restaurant industry since she was 17, said there is something special about serving food directly to customers.
“You get to interact directly with the people cooking your food,” she said. “People are excited to have something new and different — food trucks are appealing on many levels but they come with unique challenges.”
Tuten owned a restaurant in downtown Canton — Simple Taste Grill & Catering — for six years before having to shut down the family restaurant in 2013.
“I’ve missed it so bad. I miss my customers; that was my passion,” she said.
She’s spent the last three years working at the casino in Cherokee while trying to figure out how to get back to her passion. Having a food truck lets her have the best of both worlds.
“It’s much easier. The overhead’s not bad,” Tuten said. “I mean I still have to lease a building but it’s nothing like the expenses that come with a restaurant.”
FitzSimons and Gadson Griffis are entering their third year of business with Cosmic Carry-out. While he was a lawyer in a prior life, Griffis has a lot of experience as a chef. FitzSimons lived for many years in Portland, Oregon, when food trucks were all the rage.
“We decided to move back to this area — I went to school at Western (Carolina University) — and we found a food truck to buy,” she said.
It’s been a trial-and-error endeavor though. They started by serving lunches at Southwestern Community College, but business has been steadier since they relocated their truck to Innovation Brewing.
“We’re here permanently — we don’t like to move around a lot. It’s a lot of trouble,” FitzSimons said. “Now we’re set up as a permanent restaurant, which is more of the model were used to.”
Rolling with regulations
Food trucks are becoming more popular, but it isn’t like there is a free-for-all food truck epidemic. Just like restaurants, food trucks are regulated by county health departments and are inspected every three to six months.
Depending on what county you’re in or where you want to set up shop, the regulations can be slightly different. Rector said his experience trying to get proper permitting was sometimes frustrating. He felt like he had to jump through a new hoop every time he parked his barbecue trailer somewhere.
“Since we were the first one (food truck) in Haywood County, they didn’t know what to do with us,” he said. “The permits are hard to get. You don’t see too many around here because the county puts hard pressures against them — took us two years to get permitted.”
It’s one type of permit to set up shop for one day at a festival and it’s another type of permit to be able to set up outside a brewery. It’s also a different process if you are acting as your own commissary.
In addition to county health department permitting, food truck vendors have to be aware of additional restrictions on their operations — including locations and hours of operation.
Since Fat Belly’s is located within the town of Canton, Tuten has to follow the town’s rules. The town ordinance says that food trucks can only be allowed on private property within business districts between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. A food truck also must obtain a privilege license from the town once it has met all the health department requirements.
The entire process took Tuten several months — earning her SafeServ certification, passing inspections, getting her permits to finally being able to open last week. She had to put up some dry wall, prep tables, a staging room and a commercial refrigerator in the commissary even though she already had one in the food truck.
“Honestly it went much better than I thought it would,” she said. “It was hard but everyone (at the heath department) was super nice.”
Now she is able to operate anywhere in Haywood County as long as she has permission from a private landowner. She has had requests to come to Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville as well as Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City. Fat Belly’s will also be found this fall at the Church Street Festival and Apple Harvest Festival in Waynesville.
Since Cosmic Carry-out relocated to Innovation Brewing, it’s been more of a permanent restaurant than a mobile unit. The brewery serves as its commissary.
FitzSimons said Cosmic Carry-out hadn’t received any push back from the town or local restaurants.
“Sylva and the health department have been wonderful,” she said.
Average start-up costs
Food truck – wrap & equipment: $85,000
Initial product inventory: $1,500
Permits and Licenses: $300
Paper products: $250
Misc. Expenses: $500
Pots, Pans, etc.: $1,500
Fire Extinguisher: $150
SOURCE: Statistic Brain Research Institute
Food truck industry data
Annual food truck revenue: $1.2 billion
Industry revenue increase over the past five years: 12.4 percent
Total number of food trucks in the U.S.: 4,130
Average revenue generated per food truck: $290,556
Average spending per order at a food truck: $12.40
Average cost of food truck: $85,000
Where are food trucks allowed?
Each municipality can adopt its own ordinance to regulate when and where food trucks may set up shop.
Until this year, Canton prohibited food trucks within the town limits, but the board of aldermen passed an amendment in April to allow mobile food vendors under certain conditions.
• Food trucks are not allowed in residential areas.
• Can only operate on private property between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. in areas zoned for business and industry.
• Food truck vendors must have a signed health department certificate, proof of insurance, a driver’s license and written permission from a private property owner to receive a privilege license and an annual permit from the town.
Waynesville’s ordinance does not specifically address food trucks, according to Town Manager Marcy Onieal. The town does have a “temporary use provision” that allows food trucks to be permitted.
“To date, we’ve had no requests for permanent placements of food trucks, nor to my knowledge, have we had complaints about the temporary usages that crop up in association with festivals,” Onieal said. “We have issued the occasional temporary use permit, which, for the time being, is how we would continue to handle food trucks.
When food trucks want to be part of festivals on Main Street, Onieal said the entire festival is permitted to allow food vendors instead of each individual food truck. She said the town would be amenable to considering an amendment to the ordinance if specific requests were brought to the town board, but it would require input from the public, the Tourism Development Authority, Downtown Waynesville Association, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Commission.
According to Sylva Town Manager Paige Dowling, the town has not specifically addressed food trucks in its ordinance.
So far, three food trucks within the city limits have been granted an itinerant merchant permit to be able to operate.
Franklin doesn’t yet have a policy regarding food trucks, but Mayor Bob Scott wants to get something in place before it becomes a bigger issue. He doesn’t have a problem with them on private property but doesn’t want them to be in public places taking business away from brick and mortar establishments.
The Franklin Board of Aldermen directed the planning board last month to review policies regarding food truck operations.
Franklin has two food trucks that operate on private property but can relocate for festivals and special events.
Under the current ordinances, Planning Director Justin Setser said food trucks can basically come and go as they please, which is why the town is looking to implement some basic rules.
“They can go wherever they want right now. They could set up in a residential area if they wanted,” he said. “What we’re looking at is just basic stuff — making sure they’re not in a right of way, making sure they’re disposing of grease properly and making sure they’ve got everything they need from the health department.”
He said the planning board would meet again Monday to discuss food trucks and have invited the food truck vendors to the meeting.
Food trucks haven’t been an issue is Bryson City either, which is why the town doesn’t have any specific ordinance to address them, said Town Manager Larry Callicutt.
“I’m not sure we will unless something comes up,” he said. “They have to meet so many standards through the health department, so that’s the first place I refer people.”
As for parking on Min Street or other public parking areas, Callicutt said the town’s parking ordinance does prohibit vehicles from parking downtown over a certain amount of time.
“They would have to find a parking lot,” he said. “I think we have enough stuff on the books to take care of issues like that.”
Cashiers does not allow food trucks, but a temporary-use permit has been issued before for a mobile food cart serving hotdogs.
Members of the Cashiers Planning Council have made it clear that the community doesn’t want food trucks or food carts in town. The council recently discussed the issue of mobile vending at a July 27 meeting when a food cart vendor asked to extend her temporary use permit that allows her to sell hotdogs in the Village.
“When we had the big community wide food truck discussion, there was tons of community opposition, overwhelming negative for food trucks. What is the difference between a food truck and a hot dog cart? It is setting up a food operation outside the normal restaurants to sell food intermittently,” said Ann McKee Austin.
Council members chose not to renew the temporary use permit.