Wilmington, NC: Food Trucks Head to City Council

File shot by Ben Brown

By Ben Brown  |   Port City Daily

File shot by Ben Brown
File shot by Ben Brown

Six months after Patty Wagon food truck owner James Smith filed for some standards his business could follow to finally operate feasibly in Wilmington’s limits, the city council has a proposal to decide.

On the agenda for the board’s regular meeting Tuesday is a public hearing and vote on a local ordinance that would set a menu of regulations for food trucks, which currently aren’t even defined in the city’s code book.

With the rolling vendors an increasingly popular option for meals, and with owners like Smith asserting they’re as legitimate as brick-and-mortar eateries, parties have prepared what they say are reasonable guidelines for service in Wilmington with fair play among competition.

If the rules for Wilmington are passed as proposed, food trucks–”mobile food units,” properly–could do business in any nonresidential district in the city, so long as the vendor has proof of permission by the property owner.

There would, however, be a prohibition on the trucks operating within 75 feet of any open restaurant. Hours of operation would be limited to between 6 a.m. and 3 a.m., though in the restaurant-teeming downtown area, food trucks like the Patty Wagon could only operate for a maximum of five consecutive hours at any single spot and would be restricted to a maximum of two sites per day.

It’s better than the alternative, says Smith, who has been working special events and parking lot lunches under the city’s current restrictions. With no existing language on the books dealing specifically with food trucks, Wilmington has to regulate them with special-use permits that only allow operation on any certain site for just a few days a year.

Smith said Friday he was taking that route to operate legally at the spot he used to frequent, in the days before he knew the city’s code prohibited his steady business there. That’s at the corner of Front and Dock streets in the heart of downtown Wilmington.

“We’ve got a temporary permit for this weekend,” Smith said, adding of the proposed easing rules: “I’m hopeful for Tuesday.”

The process started in February with his application to add food trucks and associated rules to the city’s land development code. He submitted with his application a list of signatures supporting the change.

A petition he’d posted to the website change.org brought 454 names and comments. “Food trucks are important both culturally and as a way to bring a little uniqueness to Wilmington,” wrote one Katie Prince, listed as a Wilmington resident. “My favorite cities to visit are ones with large-scale food truck operations.”

Other food trucks operating around town include those of Poor Piggy’s BBQ & Catering, Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn, Weebo’s, Catch and India Mahal.

But some clash came from traditional restauranteurs who worried the low-overhead food trucks, with eased restrictions, might act predatory or simply in an unfair way to pick up patrons who’d otherwise spend their money at sit-down establishments.

One respondent to a survey the city conducted on the topic said the trucks should stay out of the Central Business District, which covers the tourism-dependent downtown. “It is not fair to restaurants that struggle five months out of the year that a food truck can come in during peak season and take money out of our pockets. It also cheapens the atmosphere of downtown that we have all worked so hard to maintain.”

Said another, “I do not operate any food service business, however if I did I would not want a food truck 1,000 feet from the main entrance of my restaurant.”

Posed a third: “Competition makes a better product.”

But Smith said he’s never really seen his food truck business as competition with the brick-and-mortars.

“I can see where they’d see it that way,” he said Friday, “but I think [if] you’re headed downtown to go to a nice restaurant or go sit somewhere, I don’t think you’re going to see a food truck and say, ‘Oh, look at that. I don’t want French food, anymore, I’m going to grab whatever off a truck.’

“I think we fill a different niche,” Smith said.

Tuesday’s Wilmington City Council meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the chambers of City Hall, 102 N. Third St. downtown.

Click here for the full agenda, which is still in draft form.

Council members will meet with city staff Monday morning to review the draft agenda and may modify or remove items as needed.