Asheville, NC: Downtown Likely to See Food Trucks in Septemeber

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 Joel Burgess |

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

ASHEVILLE — Come next month, a conflict that can only be described as one of the city’s longest running food fights will likely come to an end.

The City Council is set to take a second and final vote Sept. 13 on allowing food vending trucks into a downtown that has guarded its restaurants from the mobile kitchen competitors for more than 20 years.

Council members Tuesday voted 4-3 to lift the ban on trucks that now circle the city center selling tacos, falafel and other foil-wrapped fare.

A 5-2 majority was needed to alter the ordinance in one vote, but if a simple majority favors the trucks a second time, then the city will begin taking permit applications for up to 10 vehicles.

According to council members, that is likely to happen.

“Other communities have successfully implemented food trucks alongside bustling restaurants,” said Councilman Gordon Smith, who was among the majority voting yes and who said he will again vote in favor of trucks.

That kind of change will put a smile on the face of truck owners and downtown workers who see the new vendors as a way to get a good, inexpensive lunch.

But it will dampen the spirits of restaurateurs and some downtown boosters who fear the cheaper competition will hurt businesses that led the revival of downtown and on whose backs much of its future rests.

Beyond the winners and losers, the fact that the argument is even happening says something about the power of cuisine and importance of the downtown, an unusual thing in a small city, food experts and others say.

Suzy Phillips operates the Gypsy Queen Cuisine food truck at the corner of Haywood Rd. and Virginia Ave. in west Asheville. City Council is considering whether to allow street vendor trucks in downtown Asheville. photo --Bill Sanders / Bill

Most favor trucks

Along with Smith, council members voting yes were Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, Esther Manheimer and Bill Russell. Russell, who made the original motion to lift the downtown ban, said it was about not locking out new business owners.

“Some talk about placing pressure on established restaurants, for me, coming from the idea of a free-market economy, that is a lesser con,” he said.

All are ready to vote yes again, while Cecil Bothwell, who opposed the change, said he will switch his vote if fee issues can be finalized. Truck owners would likely have to pay $104 for each site at which they want to work. Lot owners would also have to pay permit fees.

Other changes to reduce noise and air pollution and trash also helped sway him.

“Taking all that together, I will vote in favor of the trucks on the second reading,” he said.

Others who voted no, Mayor Terry Bellamy and Councilman Jan Davis, appear less willing to move.

They said trucks would have an unfair advantage with fewer operating costs than restaurant owners who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in property tax.

“It’s really unfair to benefit from the brand of Asheville and only pay $104 for the entire year,” the mayor said.

Davis questioned whether the trucks would end up paying sales tax as bricks-and-mortar businesses do and said there were at least three restaurant owners who told him confidentially that they “were barely hanging on.”

“I can tell you there are restaurant owners who are saying, ‘Don’t do this to us. Not in this economy,’” he said.

The question of lifting the ban came up when truck operators brought the idea to the Asheville Downtown Commission in November.

Members of the volunteer advisory body debated the issue for months, eventually voting 7-2 in July in favor of the trucks with restrictions. They included limiting trucks to 10 downtown, allowing them only in private lots and requiring that they leave when they are not working.

In August, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted not to recommend the trucks after a 3-3 vote, with opponents citing possible problems policing the vehicles.

Council members added further restrictions Tuesday. Trucks would not be allowed to use generators and would have to hook into lot owners’ electricity. The latest hour of operation was also reduced from 3 a.m. to 2 a.m. It would be earlier for trucks operating near homes.

The changes made the yes vote easier, Manheimer and Newman said.

“I have some reservations, but I thought some of the amendments helped to make it more palatable, no pun intended,” Manheimer said .

Newman empahsized that the move was a pilot project.

“I am open to the idea that this will be tried and one option is to make changes and another is to discontinue it if it doesn’t work,” he said.

What it means

For some, the debate comes down to a cheap lunch or the idea of unfair competition.

Melanie Johnson, who works in the downtown lingerie store “Va Va Vooom,” said it’s tough to find lunch for less than $10 near her job and she would love to have options.

“Between the restaurant prices and the parking tickets I’m racking up, I’m losing money working downtown,” Johnson said .

Others not affiliated with the restaurant industry say the eateries are downtown’s backbone and should be treated carefully. John Ellis, managing director of Diana Wortham Theatre, said many patrons are lured out not just for a play, but for the downtown dining experience.

“One of the things they love about Asheville, particularly the ones from out of town, is that they park, they walk across the street to a restaurant and they walk back. In other towns it’s a multiple-step process,” Ellis said.

Beyond those arguments, the fact that the food truck issue has played out for months shows how important the city center is to the city’s culture, said Pat Whalen, president of the downtown development company, Public Interest Projects.

It also shows the importance of cuisine in Asheville, something unusual in a city of 80,000, said Scott Adams, who teaches menu design and culinary management in Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College’s culinary program.

“We could randomly choose any other city in the mid-Atlantic of our size and this would likely not be as passionate of an issue there,” Adams said.