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Food truck fight coming to Waynesville

fr foodtrucksThe sticky wicket of food trucks and food carts have taken center stage in Waynesville, with a public debate in full swing on where food trucks should be allowed to set up shop and for how long.

Food trucks and food carts have soared in popularity as a hip culinary trend nationwide, often catering to younger crowds and self-avowed foodies, creating a vibrant street scene.

But food trucks have been labeled a double-edged sword. Opponents fear unfair competition from fly-by-night food trucks would shutter bona fide restaurants, hurting the economic fabric and ultimately making it a less vibrant community.

Waynesville, like many towns across the nation, is grappling with how to blend the new food truck culture with the community’s existing character and established restaurant industry.

“We have recognized there is a need to address food trucks in our local ordinances and right now, we don’t,” said Elizabeth Teague, Waynesville’s development services director and town planner.

How the town will handle food trucks is still in flux, but the latest development coming out of a town planning board meeting this week would open the door for an unlimited number of food trucks and food carts to set up shop anywhere throughout town. The only caveat is they can’t go in residential neighborhoods and have to stay on private property.

It was great news to Alex Still, who wants to start-up a hotdog stand in the parking lot of Bob’s Sports Store across from Walmart during the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunch hour.

“I’m working two jobs and trying to provide a living for my family,” Still said of his hot dog cart venture.

In downtown Waynesville, Robert Harvey is also working two jobs to make a living. The owner of Rob’s Hot Dogs, being a restaurant owner in a seasonal tourist town can be tough, so he works as a paramedic as well.

He fears a fleet of food trucks around town will undermine the storefront restaurants, which would in turn lead to economic decline.

Harvey said restaurants have much larger overhead and more regulations to meet — from paying property taxes to having handicapped restrooms. But food trucks don’t play by the same rules and have an unfair advantage.

“They do have some overhead but nowhere near the amount the restaurant business owners have,” Harvey said. “They basically have no rules to go by, they are just out there freelancing.”

Harvey fears storefront restaurants would be replaced with fickle food trucks that lack loyalty to the community.

“They can fold up their doors and move on. If they have run the brick and mortar folks out of business then what are we going to have left?” Harvey asked.

However, to Kevin Donochod, a professional 30-something in town, food trucks would actually add to the town’s economic vitality by appealing to young people.  

“I think that is part of the missing link in Waynesville,” said Donochod.

Amanda Brown, 35, doesn’t believe food trucks will cut into restaurants’ customer base. Food truck patrons either can’t afford a regular restaurant, or they would hit a food truck one night and go to a restaurant another — one would not be in lieu of the other, she said.

“People are still going to want a sit-down restaurant experience,” Brown said.

The price point for food trucks makes them a more likely competitor in the fastfood arena, competing with places like Papa John’s and Zaxby’s rather than locally-owned restaurants. 

“I’m not at all worried,” said Jon Bowman, owner the Tipping Point Tavern in downtown Waynesville.

Theoretically, the latest planning board proposal in the food truck evolution would allow an unlimited number of makeshift food trucks operating in private parking lots all over town. But Patrick McDowell, chair of the town planning board, doesn’t anticipate an explosion of food trucks all over town. Consumer demand will naturally limit the number that come to fruition, he said.

“It will reach an equilibrium,” McDowell said.

McDowell said the idea of capping food trucks to prevent competition runs counter to free market economics. McDowell also isn’t convinced food trucks hurt the established restaurant industry.

“I don’t think there is any empirical proof that the number of restaurants in Asheville has diminished as a result of food trucks,” McDowell said.

Anthony Sutton, another planning board member, believes the effect would be just the opposite.

“When you have more food, you draw more people,” Sutton said.

Not everyone with a good burrito recipe will be able to open a food truck. There are still start-up costs and hurdles to clear, from health department regulations to fire codes. They would also need to find a private property owner willing to give them space.

However, food trucks don’t pay property taxes, don’t employ as many people and aren’t community anchors the way bricks-and-mortar restaurants are.

Richard Miller, the owner of The Classic Wine Seller and Church Street Depot, a new hamburger joint in downtown Waynesville, said there are a lot of unanswered questions in his mind before the town opens the flood gates for food trucks.

“Is the private property where they are housed going to be liable for anything that happens? Will food trucks pay business personal property tax?” Miller asked.

In addition to the standard health department inspections, new bricks-and-mortar restaurants have to pay $250 for a floor plan inspection. Will food trucks have to do that, Miller asked.

Miller thinks food trucks operating as a permanent fixture should have to play by the same set of rules. But as for the competition, Miller isn’t particularly worried.

“It is not like a big city where you grab a sandwich and stand there and eat it on the curb while talking to your friends,” Miller said. “I personally don’t feel challenged by one of these guys.”

David Young, the owner of Mad Anthony’s Bottle Shop & Beer Garden in downtown Waynesville, wants to make a food truck a permanent onsite addition to his property. He said the fear of food trucks putting restaurants out of business is unfounded.

“You’ve had food trucks all across this country for decades, but you have no town with all food trucks and no restaurants,” Young said. 

 

Planning board discussion

The town planning board discussed the food truck issue at a meeting Monday night. The meeting was packed with supporters of Mad Anthony’s.

Up until now, food trucks were lumped into the town’s catch-all regulations for temporary uses — a miscellaneous permit category that includes everything from street fairs to yard sales to seasonal Christmas tree lots.

Temporary permits are only good for 30 days at a whack and capped at 180 operational days in a calendar year at a given location.

Teague proposed a compromise that would make it easier on food trucks.

They would still be capped at 180 days in a calendar year on any given site, but could get a permit laying out their operating schedule for the whole year in one fell swoop rather than having to renew it every 30 days.

“If somebody for example wanted to have a food truck show up every Saturday night at their place, we could accommodate that,” Teague said.

Essentially, the town could craft the permit for any combination of days over the course of a year, as along as it didn’t exceed 180 days at one spot.

“Who would be responsible for enforcing the 180 days?” asked Danny Wingate, a planning board member.

It would largely be on the honor system unless town enforcement staff got wind to the contrary, Teague said.

“We really don’t want to be nickel and diming people on their 180 days,” Teague replied.

But several planning board members didn’t agree that food trucks should be capped at 180 days within a calendar year.

“You guys are going to make this so complicated. Just strike the 180 days in a calendar year,” said Robert Hermann, a planning board member. 

Several planning board members agreed, suggesting food trucks be allowed to renew their permit consecutively for 180 days at a time. The continuous roll over of their permit would be allowed as long as they weren’t causing problems.

Teague asked what the criteria would be to determine whether the permit should roll over or get denied when the 180-day renewal came up.

“That does put staff in a bit of a bind. We can’t just say ‘Well the neighbors don’t like it so we aren’t going to renew,’” Teague said.

“There needs to be some guidelines of what quantitates denial,” agreed McDowell. “I think you are trying to avoid that perception of picking on somebody.”

The idea of a temporary food truck permit that continuously rolls also over begs the question of whether these food trucks really meet the definition of food trucks, or whether they are in fact a permanent restaurant masquerading under temporary rules.

“Is that really temporary? When is something temporary and at what point does it become permanent?” Teague said.

Some food trucks are true to form — a mobile trailer that rolls into a microbrewery’s parking lot on Friday and Saturday nights to sling barbecue from a window.

But others are more akin to stationary restaurants housed in trailer. Despite their permanent nature, they would be exempt from many rules and regulations that otherwise apply to traditional restaurants.

Food trucks and food carts would still have to meet health codes for sanitary food preparation and would also need a vehicle permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

The proposed rules would limit food trucks to private property in commercial and industrial districts, and prohibit them within 50 feet of a residence.

Teague cautioned the planning board that despite its proclivity to lift barriers for food trucks, the decision will ultimately rest with the town board of aldermen.

A public hearing on the issue would be held by the planning board first, and then another public hearing would be held by the town board of aldermen before a final decision is made.

 

 

Coming next week

Mad Anthony’s Bottle Shop & Beer Garden in downtown Waynesville is at the forefront of the food truck fight in Waynesville. It lacks an onsite restaurant, but he hopes to make a food truck a permanent addition to the parking lot. See next week’s edition for an article on the tug-of-war playing out between the town building inspections department and Mad Anthony’s.

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