Eli Enav peaked inside a bright orange Halal food cart on a downtown sidewalk Friday afternoon, just as a Styrofoam container filled with lamb meat smothered in sauteed onions and bell peppers emerged.
The 21-year-old Binghamton University student from Washington, D.C. watched as the cart’s owner, Paul Muzzio, 23, applied a final touch to the dish called a gyro platter, covering it in his sweet and tangy version of a traditional tzatziki sauce, the yogurt, mint and chopped cucumber mixture.
“I didn’t necessarily expect to see a food cart like this in Binghamton,” said Enav, an accounting student living on Court Street, just a few blocks from the new business, which is named “Sauced” and opened Wednesday.
But, Enav may soon see other similar culinary options popping up downtown, where city officials are considering allowing between four and six food trucks to open up shop next year.
While the city already permits stationary food carts, like Muzzio’s, existing codes and regulations in Binghamton essentially prohibit food trucks. The difference is placement: food trucks would park on the street; food carts are generally on the sidewalk.
The city’s plan to allow the trucks involves launching a one-year trial run for the kitchens on four wheels beginning in 2014, said Omar Sanders, of the city’s Economic Development Office.
“They add to the vibrancy of downtown and really get feet on the streets, while just letting people enjoy what this community has to offer,” Sanders said.
Sanders, who spearheaded the effort with Jeremy Pelletier, deputy city clerk, noted the proposal remains in the early stages, adding it must ultimately gain City Council approval to move forward.
Councilman Chris Papastrat, R-5th District, said council’s decision on food trucks will follow a community outreach push underway to gather input before a final version of the proposal is presented in coming weeks.
“There’s some questions other than just plain interest from customers,” Papastrat said. “What effect would it have on the local restaurants that are already downtown?”
David Whalen, 31, owns Binghamton Hots, an eatery on Washington Street. He is worried food trucks would steal customers from his business, which opened about two years ago to cater to the growing number of college students living downtown at new apartment buildings and lofts.
“There are people who have invested a lot of private money, restored old buildings and given a face lift to downtown,” Whalen said. “And to saturate the market downtown any further would actually take away from the progress we’ve made.”
Whalen noted food trucks also have an unfair advantage, saying the city would have to account for that when considering permit fees and other details. While many restaurants pay property taxes and rent, food trucks have low operating costs and can undercut prices, he said.
“Bringing in food trucks is certainly going to hurt the brick-and-mortar restaurants,” Whalen said.
Early drafts of the proposal seek to have food trucks open at designated parking spaces downtown, rather than moving among different areas of the city, Sanders said.
He noted food trucks adhere to the same health standards as restaurants, with Broome County Health Department overseeing the inspection process.
The proposal drew excitement Friday from some residents and business owners in downtown Binghamton, which was abuzz with people enjoying Restaurant Week, an event promoting the recent resurgence of a wide variety of eateries across the city in recent years.
“I work here downtown a lot, and it would be great to have some more choices as to what kinds of food to eat,” said Wanda Blackman, 43, of the Town of Binghamton.
She grew up in New York City where mobile food options are common, she said.
“To me, it’s the most normal thing in the world,” she said.
Other residents reacted similarly, saying they would welcome more options for a quick lunch break or late-night snack after leaving downtown bars.
Damien Cornwell, 41, owns a barbecue chicken stand called Café 93.3 on the corner of Washington and Court streets.
The stand opened three weeks ago and serves up authentic Southern-style barbecue, he said, adding it’s part of his other business, the WJOB radio station.
“I think any kind of commerce is good, I think opportunity begets more opportunity,” Cornwell said. “And I think that the more culture and choices you give people that are living in downtown, the better downtown will be as a result.”