Chapel Hill: Food Trucks Continue to Stir Debate

Will and Pop’s food truck, co-owned and run by Will Pettis and his father, Kenny, serves homemade lunches Wednesday on West Franklin Street.

By Reyna Desai |

Will and Pop’s food truck, co-owned and run by Will Pettis and his father, Kenny, serves homemade lunches Wednesday on West Franklin Street.

Opposition says trucks compete unfairly with local businesses

CHAPEL HILL – From New York to California, food trucks have become popular for their unusual menu items and affordable prices — but not in Chapel Hill, where the question of whether they can get an operating permit is controversial.

The Town Council may allow these trucks to operate in town, but restaurant owners, who believe the trucks compete unfairly with hard-pressed local restaurants, are voicing opposition.

Jared Resnick, owner of West End Wine Bar on West Franklin Street, is one of those concerned.

“We have an incredible restaurant scene in the town of Chapel Hill and I think what we should be doing is looking how to benefit it and also create more assets for the environment already there,” he said.

Food trucks guidelines are regulated by multiple authorities in Chapel Hill, making it difficult for vendors to operate. A list of requirements is on the town’s Web site. Resnick fears that the mobile vendors would have an unfair advantage.

“To allow food trucks to park right across a brick and mortar store that is paying rent or paying taxes, paying mortgage — it’s not necessarily competition but it doesn’t bolster our entire economic base,” he said.

Brian Bottger, a food truck owner, disagreed that lower costs associated with running a food truck were unfair to restaurant owners. He said his overhead costs for maintaining his kitchen equipment and insurance can get extremely high.

“If a restaurant could figure out a way to not pay those costs, they would not pay them,” he said. “Some of our costs are just as high as restaurants if not higher, and our revenue is smaller.”

Bottger opened Only Burger, a restaurant in Durham, after operating a food truck for about a year and a half. He continues to run his mobile business and said banning food trucks would be pointless.

“Part of it for me, is that food trucks are already here,” Bottger said. “They’re already several running in Chapel Hill as I understand it. So the question is can we really keep them out?”

However, these food trucks are doing it illegally. Recently, police told the owner of Will and Pop’s food truck to move outside Chapel Hill town limits. Bottger said his food truck was allowed in town for private events and when invited by UNC-Chapel Hill to serve members and staff on the football team. This was a loophole in the otherwise stringent laws regarding the presence of food trucks in Chapel Hill.

“When I called the city to ask them about getting a permit, they said the university can do what they want,” he said.

Bottger says that the food trucks have a different business model than restaurants.

By offering seating, alcoholic drinks and air conditioning, he believes that restaurants have an advantage over food trucks.

“Restaurants are a different animal than food trucks,” Bottger said. “They’re not necessarily competing with each other so much as creating a different product.”

He also added that by specializing in certain menu items, food trucks attract a different client base. Examples of food trucks’ unique menu items include Detroit-style pizza slices at Klausie’s and “the Gangsta,” a grilled cheese sandwich coated with spiced pork at Will and Pops.

“I think the concern is, ‘How do you keep them in control, how do you get the tax revenue from them as a legitimate business?’ Those are the decisions that are actually concerning folks more than whether to let them in or not,” Bottger said.

He said he paid his taxes for owning his truck to Durham County, where he and his truck were stationed 90 percent of the time.

“When I have done the occasional event in Chapel Hill, I have taken that tax revenue out over to Durham County,” he said.

He added that this was because he only served Chapel Hill a couple weeks a year, but that if food truck owners were allowed to sell in Chapel Hill, that there should be no barrier to them wanting to pay their taxes to Orange County.

Matt Efird, assistant to the Carrboro town manager, said mobile food vendors operating in the town have to pay a one-time $75 zoning fee and a $25 privilege license fee annually. Food truck owners have to purchase a business license like any restaurant. They also have to borrow or rent kitchens as they are routinely inspected by the Health Department.

Resnick believes that too many questions remain in the air for food trucks to be allowed to enter town.

“How are we going to inspect the trucks? How are you going to make sure the taxes that are being collected are being paid toward Orange County?” he said. “How are we going to regulate that? How are we going to permit that? Where are they going to park?”

Kendal Brown, the town of Chapel Hill’s principal planner, is working on developing answer to such questions posed by council members, which will be reviewed at a yet to be determined future meeting. Resnick hopes these considerations involve protection for local businesses.

“I want the town to look at not just seeing the trucks are cool and that there’s a whole food-truck movement,” Resnick said. “I want whatever we are doing to actually enhance the development and growth of our town.”