Chapel Hill Council Chews on Food Trucks

by Joe Schwartz |

No one should have been hungry at Chapel Hill Town Hall on Monday night, with the burger broilers, the artisanal pan pizza peddler, the Sabrett slinger and the barbecue pork pusher in attendance.

That is, if they had been allowed to sell their food.

Chapel Hill Town Council discussed the wisdom of food trucks in response to a petition filed last fall by Lex Alexander, managing partner of 3CUPS, which serves coffee, tea and wine.

“I would just encourage us as a progressive, wide-open liberal community not to be protectionist and ban the food trucks,” said Alexander, adding that the trendy eateries fill a dining niche.

Chapel Hill issues permits for food truck vendors to operate downtown during FestiFall and other downtown events and for sidewalk dining in Southern Village. Operators seeking regular space must apply to the planning board. But a permanent space runs counter to the notion of a mobile food truck, which is meant to be nimble enough to travel to the hungry masses, not vice versa.

Carrboro, with its eclectic array of crepe and tongue taco joints, and Durham, home of OnlyBurger, which has both a mobile and a brick-and-mortar business, allow food trucks. Raleigh leaders are warming to the idea.

“Chapel Hill is full of interesting and creative people, and the truck idea is an exciting venue for people to do this kind of thing, and it’s missing here,” said Ken Simon, who wants to open a breakfast truck with his son, a cook at the Washington Duke Inn. “I just drove across the country and it’s not missing in all of the other exciting towns; it’s kind of the big thing.”

But not everyone is jazzed about wheeled restaurants peddling their wares.

Jared Resnick, owner of West End Wine Bar and a West End Merchant Association member, called food trucks “absolutely counter to the very nature and core of local business.”

“For me and my business, food trucks are an asset, but it’s not about me and it’s not about my business,” Resnick said after the forum. “What I look at is all the people around me that have worked so hard to establish their businesses. In my mind, the only way that it can work is if these people are considered as well.”

He supports food trucks only if they are connected to existing businesses before “adding more water to an already diluted situation.”

The Chapel Hill–Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, which counts 110 local eateries as members, has not yet taken a position. CEO Aaron Nelson said chamber members are “of mixed mind.”

“There is no rule about competition, but we don’t often have people come to us and ask them to change the rules so they can compete with the home team,” Nelson said.

Yet food truck operators who spoke said they don’t intend to compete with restaurants. Food trucks cater to a hurried crowd; few people decide to trade the luxury of waiter service, bathrooms and white tablecloths for brown bags and sidewalks.

Although council members were receptive, they also expressed concern about collecting sales tax, using valuable downtown parking space and protecting restaurant owners’ investments.

Food truck vendors pay sales tax in the county where the sale is made. Jonathan Childress, a Barbecue Joint partner, says he pays property taxes and fees on his food truck in Orange County. Yet in Chapel Hill, he can only use it on UNC’s campus, which has different rules than the town. He pays sales tax in Carrboro, Saxapahaw and Durham, where he is “welcomed with open arms.”

Food trucks must be connected to a commissary, an established business with food preparation space, and pass inspections.

Jaymin Patel used to inspect food trucks in Orange County. He says most operators are very proactive and “seem to be the most ready to do the right thing.”

“This is filling a niche of food options for people that need nice, good food on the go. Right now all we have is McDonald’s and Wendy’s and all these processed foods.”

Several council members said they were open to trucks, but not downtown. Council member Matt Czajkowski commended the creative and enthusiastic public discussion.

“So I would hope in some way we can find a way to accommodate all of that creativity and enthusiasm,” Czajkowski said. “Although it’s very clear we can’t allow some form of unfair competition where those who do own restaurants find themselves in a position where they have higher costs and constraints and suffer because of it.”

Mike Stenke, owner of Klausie’s Pizza, was energized by the dialogue. “There was a lot more focus on creativity and how we want to foster it, how we want to work together,” Stenke said. “In Raleigh there’s a lot of butting heads and us-versus-them. Here it was more, at least from the council members, ‘There’s got to be a way to make it work. We have to come up with something, let’s just come up with details.’ That’s the idea I want to take back to Raleigh with me is the idea that this can help everybody.”

The Town Council directed the planning staff to return with a list of best practices from other areas that allow food trucks.