Food trucks stall in committee, hot dog carts may close earlier

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The City of Raleigh wants to slowly “dip its toes in” when it comes to allowing food trucks downtown, starting with private property.

Members of the city council’s Law and Public Safety Committee agreed Tuesday to draft an ordinance allowing food trucks to park on private property downtown. The ordinance will address issues such as grease and trash disposal, safety, privilege licenses, hours of operation and tax collection.

Food truck vendors selling pizza, Italian food, hamburgers and tacos are springing up in communities nationwide. In Durham, the trucks are liberally regulated and can park nearly anywhere with a permit. In Raleigh, the trucks are not allowed to park on city streets. Most park on private property outside downtown, such as the Big Boss Brewing Company.

A city staffer told committee members it makes sense to take the process “step-by-step,” and that private property would be the least controversial way of introducing food trucks downtown.

But if comments Tuesday from involved parties were any indication, controversy will follow regardless.

Restaurant owners in attendance vehemently spoke against the trucks. Safety, litter and traffic are all concerns, they said, along with how and where the trucks dispose of grease and whether they are subject to the same unannounced health inspections as restaurants.

But the biggest concern is competition from a vendor with such small overhead costs.

Payroll, rent, taxes and licenses are just a few of the costs a brick-and-mortar restaurant suffers that leave them vulnerable to competition, said one restaurant owner.

“I just sent a high tax bill to the city and the state just this month,” he said. “You’re giving me an unfair advantage by letting somebody come in who doesn’t have the same costs.”

“If [my business] doesn’t go well … I can’t put my restaurant in drive and go somewhere else,” said a member of the Glenwood Merchants’ Association.

Food truck vendors said they had no intention of driving out restaurants. Two said they hope to have brick-and-mortar locations someday. One food truck owner said their main competition is brown bag lunches and fast food chains – not sit-down restaurants.

“I do not want to set my truck up on Glenwood South,” said Steve Valentino, who owns an Italian food truck. “I don’t want to compete with what’s there. But I do want to be in a symbiotic relationship [with restaurants.]

Mike Stenke, owner of the Klausie’s pizza truck, has led the charge for allowing the trucks to park on city streets and is not satisfied with private parking lots. He said in a free marketplace, the city should not be protecting anyone.

“Is that the job of the city of Raleigh — to guard businesses from new businesses?” he said. “Is it the role of the city council to determine who gets to compete?”

One suggestion was that the food trucks congregate in a “pod” formation in one section of the city to avoid hurting restaurants.

Food truck owners seemed amenable to that idea, and at least one restaurant owner agreed.

“I like the idea of a food court in the warehouse district,” said Karen Walker of Cafe Helios. “I think that’s a great idea. But I’m really against [food trucks] all the way around.”

Once an ordinance is drafted, it will be reviewed by the Law and Public Safety Committee. The full City Council likely won’t see the issue until April.

Stenke said he is disappointed with the slow progress. He is in favor of limiting the number of food trucks, having regular health inspections and setting up proximity rules – as long as he has the opportunity to sell food.

Food trucks are regulated by the county like any other commercial kitchen.

“If the rules are made right, everyone will win,” he said. “And I know it includes street parking.”

In other business, the committee approved amendments to regulations for hot dog carts on city sidewalks.

If approved by the full council, the amended ordinance will require hot dog carts to end sales at 3 a.m. instead of 4 a.m. Vendors will have until 3:30 a.m. to clean up the site. The amendments also require carts to set up at least 50 feet from the pedestrian entrance to a business.

Committee members said the new times were due to complaints from residents and police about fights and loud activity around hot dog stands. Hot dog cart owners present at the meeting said the new closing time would not hugely impact business.