Asheville: Entrepreneur Won’t Give Up on Falafel Truck Dream

Suzy Salwa Phillips cooks inside in her falafel food truck. She's been trying to get a city permit for over a year. photo John Coutlakis

By John Boyle | Citizen-Times.com

 

Suzy Salwa Phillips cooks inside in her falafel food truck. She's been trying to get a city permit for over a year. photo John Coutlakis

I just can’t understand why the city of Asheville has a reputation as a bad place to do business.

Hmmm…

Maybe it has something to do with stories like that of Suzy Salwa Phillips, who’s now spent more than a year trying to get permission to operate a falafel food truck in Asheville.

Salwa, 38, grew up in war-torn Lebanon and spent a lot of time in shelters cooking, learning from her mother. She came to the United States in 1989 and has been working in restaurants since, including the past eight years in the front of the house at Doc Chey’s and the last four years at the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village.

Yep, she works two jobs, as a lot of locals do, to make ends meet. She wanted her own restaurant, but when the economy tanked, her investors pulled out.

So Phillips bought a used food truck from Florida for $20,000 and set about her dream of making a decent living by cooking and selling her own food, in her case, Lebanese street food.

Trust me, it’s wonderful stuff. Phillips fired up her truck last week to test it out and served me one of the best falafels I’ve ever had — tahini dressing, fresh parsley, tomatoes, wild cucumber pickles.

I could go on. In short, we need some high-quality, clean — and relatively inexpensive — meal options like this around town.

Meet ‘Spartacus’

Her truck, a 1986 model she calls “Spartacus,” has a full kitchen on board, and it’s clean and well-kept. She and her husband, local artist Gabriel Shaffer, who’s worked diligently on the project with her, are ready to go.

But the city is not.

Phillips has run into the kabob grinder of city government bureaucracy, as well as concerns from brick and mortar restaurants and the machinations of such organizations as the Asheville Downtown Commission, which only meets monthly and has a key role in the new food truck ordinance the city is writing.

Phillips understands the city has to have some regulations in place so the town is not overrun with food trucks. And she understands that restaurants that pay property taxes and rent want to ensure they don’t take a financial hit.

“But it’s a free market, too,” Phillips said. “People like me, who are poor or come from a poor family but have ambition and drive, we need a chance in life.”

Still, no permit.

“It’s looking like another six months to a year before I can do this,” Phillips said. “You do feel like you’re running around in the same circle, chasing your tail.”

Phillips, who admits to being tenacious like “a bull,” said she’s in it for the long haul. I asked her why she hasn’t quit.

“Because I have no other choice — I don’t want to wait tables all my life, and I don’t see myself getting a $250,000 loan anytime soon (for a brick and mortar restaurant),” she said. “And I’m not a quitter.”

25-year-old rules

The city, of course, has its rules. Basically, food trucks have been banned downtown for 25 years, dating back to when downtown was pretty much a ghost town and fledgling restaurants didn’t want precious business sucked away by food carts or trucks.

Alan Glines, an urban planner in the city’s Planning and Development office, said the city is working on a draft ordinance about food trucks “to make the rules clearer.” That’s involved meeting with various stakeholders, including restaurant owners and people interested in mobile food sales or vending.

They’ve been looking at other cities and want to avoid some problems that have cropped up in places such as Portland, Ore. Glines said it’s important to distinguish from food carts, such as hot dog stands, which the city currently allows, and the big food trucks such as Spartacus.

In a nutshell, the city wants to be sure it’s not overrun with trucks taking up valuable parking spaces or partially parked on sidewalks and creating litter problems.

Nothing is ever simple when it comes to doing something in the city. You’ve got your encroachments on rights of way to consider, the possibility of trucks dumping greasy gray water down sewer drains, fire concerns, making sure trucks roll on and off sites each day, compliance with all Health Department rules, no parking at metered spaces.

“Detractors of mobile food vending will say it could look really bad, or be messy and junky,” Glines said. “I think that’s what the mobile food trucks are up against — a perception problem.”

On the plus side, they can add to a town’s food diversity and usually offer meals a little cheaper.

Jimmy Rentz, the owner of Barley’s Taproom downtown and a member of the Downtown Commission, sympathizes with Phillips and the long wait, but he says “all things are relative.”

“There are a lot of issues,” he said. “The ordinance that’s on the books right now and that’s been there for 25 years is ‘No food trucks.’ That’s what they’re asking us to change, and it takes time to look at a 25-year-old ordinance that was put there for a reason and say, ‘Why should we change it?’”

They know not everyone will like whatever they do. “We’d just like most people to be happy with it,” Rentz said.

Another meeting

Glines emailed me the draft ordinance, and it seems fairly reasonable. Trucks would have to get a permit, sites where they park would have to meet current zoning requirements for landscaping, ingress and egress and setbacks.

They can’t operate between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., have to use compostable containers, can’t set up tables or chairs, have to leave the site every day and have to keep up their permits.

They could only operate with the property owner’s permission. If you’re really interested in all this, another meeting on the proposed ordinance is coming up at noon Monday in the fifth floor of City Hall.

Phillips is pretty confident she has “a lockdown” on two nondowntown spots — next to the new Bywater bar on Riverside Drive and across from Ingles on Haywood Road in West Asheville.

Still, she wants the option of being downtown or closer to the Central Business District.

And that means tapping into a patience she didn’t know she had.

“I’ve bit my tongue so many times I feel like I have no tongue,” Phillips said with a laugh.Despite her upbeat attitude, the falafel truck saga is wearing on her.

“There’s no urgency whatsoever on anyone’s behalf,” Phillips said.

And that summarizes starting a business in Asheville better than I ever could.

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