Columbia, SC: Taco Wars

The still-unopened Fever is directly across Main Street from the prospective taco cart location. Photos by Jonathan Sharpe.

BY EVA MOORE | Free-Times.com

David Roberts wants to put a taco cart on the sidewalk at the corner of Main and Gervais streets. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe.

Must the City Choose Between Bricks-and-Mortar Businesses and Street Vendors?

At the South Carolina State House this week, legislators are arguing over whether to renew a tax break for the massive online retailer Amazon, which is building a facility right across the river in Lexington County. Amazon has threatened to cancel the project — which is supposed to create more than 1,200 full-time jobs by 2013 — unless the state gives it a sales tax break on goods sold inside South Carolina.

Right across Gervais Street from the capitol, the City of Columbia is locked in a much smaller but oddly parallel battle. Council members and local businesses are fighting over what will happen to a small expanse of sidewalk in front of the 18-story Main & Gervais office tower on the northwest corner of the intersection.

David Roberts wants to put a taco cart there.

Ellyn Season, who’s building a Southwestern restaurant called Taqueria Fever just across
Main Street, does not want Roberts to put a taco cart there.

“What we’re being asked to do is pick and choose between who is more worthy,” a frustrated Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine told her fellow council members at a March 29 public hearing.

Incredibly, these taco wars have dragged on for more than a year.

And the debate gets right at the heart of Columbia’s economic development and Main Street revitalization dilemmas. How far should governments go to attract and retain businesses that want to relocate here? Should politicians have to choose between a taco cart and a taqueria — and how should they make that decision?

And why the heck does everyone want to sell tacos at the corner of Main and Gervais Streets, anyway?

Start with a Cart

David Roberts seems like a practical guy.

By day, he investigates car accidents; his clients are mostly law firms. He owns the North Main Street building that houses his business. He and his wife have young daughters. They go to soccer games. He likes golf.

But he also wants to run a taco cart.

Not just any taco cart, but one with a rotating menu of fresh, local meats and vegetables, with a creative approach to what goes into a taco.

“Some days it might not even look like a taco,” Roberts says. “It might be chopped barbecue, might be shredded barbecue. We can take a lot of the Lowcountry flavors we have — like a chicken bog, even,” he says. “A holiday comes up, Cinco de Mayo, we go Mexican … The Fourth of July comes around and they’re having fireworks over the capitol, we might have hot dog tacos.”

Following the lead of popular food trucks and carts in other cities, he’ll tweet each day’s menu.

His business plan involves converting part of his North Main building to a commercial
kitchen, where he can park the cart and prepare each day’s food.
The kitchen will also be available for rent to businesses that don’t need a full-time kitchen of their own but still need to process and prepare food in a health-department-approved facility — local beekeepers bottling honey, for example, or bakers, or small-time caterers.

With a rough business plan in place, Roberts first applied for a sidewalk vending permit for Der Tacos in September 2009. The city has 11 pre-approved sidewalk vending locations, half of which are occupied. The Main and Gervais site was among the handful of available sites — and, Roberts says, it was clearly the best.

“I checked out just about every restaurant book in our library over there, and they all say ‘location, location, location,’” he says.

Unlike some other parts of downtown, the surrounding buildings are all at high occupancy:
The Holder Properties-managed Main & Gervais tower is full except for a restaurant; across Main Street, the Capitol Center is at 80 percent capacity, Roberts says. The State House across the street provides plenty of traffic while the Legislature’s in session.

Also, it’s almost literally the center of town.

“When you go to Google Earth and put in Columbia, South Carolina, you almost come down right on top of it,” Roberts says.

At the time Roberts first applied, Holder Properties was building the new office tower, and city staff asked him to wait until the construction was finished. He did; then he put in his application.

The city’s planning and business license staff helped him along, he says.

“I know the city gets a bad rap,” Roberts says, “but in this particular case, I am on the record that the city bureaucracy did everything that I expected in a timely manner, kept me informed and was not a hindrance.”

In March 2010, with all the preparatory work done, Roberts’ permit came before City Council for approval. And that’s when he learned some major downtown interests were lined up against him.

Holder, which built and manages the new office tower, didn’t want anybody selling anything in front of their new building, and asked the city to remove the site from the list of approved sidewalk vending location. It had been on the list since 2004 and wasn’t re-evaluated when Holder opened its new building.

And the City Center Partnership, Columbia’s downtown business coalition, stepped up to protect a new business they’d just recruited to Main Street: a planned Southwestern restaurant called Fever. Competition from a taco cart was not in owner Ellyn Season’s plans.

“We think it’d be counterproductive,” Amy Stone, vice president of retail recruitment for the
City Center Partnership, told City Council.

City Council fretted and debated; they delayed their vote and rescheduled it for a later hearing. They asked the parties to meet and find a compromise.

In the end, Roberts made the decision for them, asking the city to put his permit on hold for one year.

“It gives time for Ms. Season to open her restaurant,” Roberts said at the time. He would work on his business plan, he told Council.

“I want Main Street to succeed,” he said, describing a taco cart as the “last layer on Main” once other businesses had time to get established.

“The little guy will get out of the way,” Roberts said.

That was one year ago.

Feverish

Season, a Charlotte entrepreneur, spent several years looking around Southern cities for the perfect place to launch a restaurant before settling on Columbia.

When 1202 Main Street became available — Dunkin’ Donuts had planned to open a store
there but the franchisee went bankrupt before they could do so — she decided the 75-year-old space was perfect.

She’s planning for 40 seats — about 10 tables — and an eight-seat bar, three seats of which will be reserved for to-go business.

She’s told Council and others around town that she plans to hire 25 to 30 full-time employees in addition to part-time employees. (Privately, several people in the industry say the estimate is high.)

The still-unopened Fever is directly across Main Street from the prospective taco cart location. Photos by Jonathan Sharpe.

But renovating and upfitting a 75-year-old space is not an entirely predictable process.

“At every turn, there were unforeseen issues with the building,” she says.

She’s sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into the space — even dipping into her 401K retirement funds, she told City Council.

The tab so far for renovations: $400,000.

She’s invested almost as much in the space as her landlord paid to buy the building, in fact.

And she’s been paying rent on the space since last June.

She also hired consultants to help her design the menu and develop her restaurant concept. And she’s already hired a chef, whose salary she’s paying. Those expenses are in addition to the $400,000.

After some delays, and pending some building and health department inspections, Fever is now scheduled to open at the end of April.

Season opposed Der Tacos last year, and she still opposes it. The food concept is similar enough, she says, that Roberts would be direct competition for her business.

“If he were selling peanuts, I’d be fine,” Season told Council on March 29.

“We’re building out a space. It’s not a two-wheel cart,” she said. “I need the support of the city,” she pleaded.

In a follow-up interview, she said a food cart just doesn’t pay into the system the way a bricks-and-mortar business does.

“Whatever money you make, you can hide a lot of your revenues,” Season says. “It isn’t a level playing field,” she said.

“Somebody comes over there, takes two to three hours out of the biggest part of your day,” Season said. “Meanwhile, we’re still paying staff, property taxes, utilities — all those things.”

She suggested Roberts find a new spot.

“If I had a taco cart, I’d go over by the school [USC]. Kids love that stuff … There are other locations for him to go; we are where we are.”

What Main Street Means

In May 2010, shortly before Mayor Steve Benjamin took office, he sat in his transition office — a long, narrow space on one end of City Hall, with the building’s typical ’70s carpet and fixtures — and talked about Main Street.

He’d been noticing the clocks, he said: those big, round clocks on poles at certain downtown intersections. He’d been thinking about putting an amphitheater next to City Hall, where the parking lot is now — just somewhere for small events and speeches. He wanted to find federal and private money to renovate City Hall.

His eyes shone. The mayor was in love with Main Street.

The sidewalk where Der Tacos’ cart would stand is in front of the glassy new NBSC building. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe.

One of his first acts as mayor was to organize a parade down Main for the national champion USC baseball team.

This year, at a March 8 conference announcing a new grant program to spruce up Main Street, Benjamin explicitly staked this council’s career on the success of downtown.

“The revitalization is quite frankly a core tenet of how we will determine if we have been successful as city leaders,” Benjamin said.

It’s a tough road. When Benjamin took office, the central business district had over 1 million square feet of empty office space. SCANA had recently moved its headquarters from Main across the river to Cayce. A private group was building a controversial homeless center at Main and Elmwood.

As of December, the downtown office occupancy rate hadn’t improved, though commercial realtor Colliers Keenan predicts it will improve in 2011.

Things are already looking up.

Mast General is opening a store in the old Lourie’s building in May; they’ve told downtown business owners that Mast will draw 1,500 to 2,000 people downtown each weekend day.
The Nickelodeon Theatre is renovating the old Fox Theatre and will move from its current location near USC later this year.

Workers have already torn the façade off the 10,000-square-foot former Main & Taylor Shoe Salon, exposing an older Art Deco façade and the old W.T. Grant department store lettering. That building will go up for retail or restaurant rent later this year.

S&S Arts Supply moved to Main Street recently. With the mayor’s support, an artist is trying to get some city money to open an arts center in the Tapp’s building. A new city parking garage is in the works.

The city is also offering grants to Main Street businesses to fix up their façades.

Through all the streetscaping and business recruitment, the city has explicitly made sidewalk food vendors part of a revitalized Main Street. On March 29, without discussion,
City Council approved two new downtown hot dog vendors — which will be within a block of existing hot dog vendors, not to mention bricks-and-mortar restaurants.

It was only on Roberts’ application that they got stuck.

Deciding Factors

With all the empty office and retail space, business recruitment is clearly key to the city’s plans to revitalize Main Street and improve Columbia’s economy.

That’s what council members Leona Plaugh and Belinda Gergel emphasize when they talk about Fever and Der Tacos.

“I want to thank you for the investment you have already made,” Gergel told Season at the March 29 hearing on Der Tacos’ application.

“We are presented with two very attractive alternatives,” Gergel told her fellow council members, “but one is already there,” she said, referring to Fever.

Plaugh also said Season’s investment outweighs Roberts’ proposal.

“I have to support somebody who is financially vested,” Plaugh said. “Twenty-five employees is not lost on me.”

But Councilman Sam Davis wants to support Der Tacos — and not just because Roberts already runs a business in Davis’ district and would be opening the commercial kitchen there as well. Roberts played by the rules set by Council, Davis said. To be consistent,
Council should approve him. It’s not fair to protect Season at the expense of another businessperson.

“Did the folks that you worked with [City Center Partnership] guarantee you no competition?” Davis asked Season.

Tameika Isaac Devine echoed those concerns, asking what Season would think if Monterrey’s, a local Mexican restaurant chain, opened a location in the Capitol Center.

“Are you expecting us to keep away anyone in that block who’s doing what you’re doing?” Devine asked Season.

“We can’t continue to string this man along if this is a location we’ve advertised,” Devine told her fellow council members.

The Forgotten Taco Vendor

All this time, a local business has already been selling tacos at the corner of Main and Gervais.

On Tuesday nights, The Whig, a hip bar in the basement of the Capitol Center, sells tacos for 50 cents apiece.

They’re nothing fancy — basic beef or beans with cheese and a few other fixins. But they bring in big crowds: Taco Tuesday has become a feature of Columbia life.

Phillip Blair, a co-owner of The Whig, says the bar doesn’t feel threatened by Der Tacos.

“We all would love to have a taco cart out there,” Blair says. “We officially want a taco cart.”

The Whig’s management is involved in the city’s Main Street revitalization, from partnering with the Columbia Museum of Art on its Arts & Draughts series to participating in the Urban
Tour to applying for a grant as part of the city’s façade improvement program. So they’re invested in the success of the street.

It helps that Der Tacos and The Whig would have different business hours, Blair says. But
even if they didn’t, he sees more businesses as a plus. And he welcomes Fever, too.

“It just brings more people here,” Blair says. “If anything, we’ll share customers. We say ‘The more the merrier.’”

Alex Keyser, one of the two hot dog vendors whose applications were just approved by Council, agrees. He’s been selling hot dogs in front of the Art Bar at night; with his new application, he moves into tougher, more competitive territory.

“Everyone would love to just monopolize a place,” he says, “but I think competition’s good.”
Taco Cart Redux

One year later, Fever stands unopened, and Der Tacos’ application is before Council again.

And just like a year ago, City Council members spent more than an hour fretting over the decision at their March 29 meeting before deciding to delay a vote on the permit. They’ll vote April 19 instead. In the meantime, they’ve asked Roberts, Season and other interested parties to meet and try to find a compromise.

According to the mayor, Holder Properties is still opposed to the site hosting any kind of sidewalk vendor — taco cart, peanut seller or otherwise. Several attempts by Free Times to confirm Holder’s position have gone unanswered.

The City Center Partnership, Main Street’s business coalition, is siding with Holder and
Season.

“I don’t feel like our organization has a position,” says CCP director Matt Kennell — however, “We do know that a couple of adjacent owners have real concerns about the cart.
They feel like their investments would be undermined.”

“Who we really represent and who supports us is the owners of property downtown and the tenants who pay their leases,” says Kennell of CCP. “Which in the case of sidewalk vendors is neither. They’re just not our constituency.”

The CCP does receive other city funding, Kennell added.

Season also urges City Council to deny Roberts’ permit.

“I don’t believe that it should be that difficult of a decision,” Season said. “Just knowing what it has taken, I would like for people to side [with] people who have made a really significant commitment and attempt to do what we’re doing. We’ve invested this, and Mr. Roberts has a $2,500 cart.”

“I don’t begrudge him any kind of livelihood,” she continued, “but I think he has a lot of other options in the city.”

But Roberts doesn’t like the way everyone’s framing the discussion.

He sent council members a thank you note after the March 29 meeting, he says.

“I expressed that I understood they have a difficult decision to make. One group is going to say ‘Hooray, you support a street vendor,’ and the other group, with that vote, is going to say ‘How dare you do that to somebody that’s just invested in downtown?’”

“But I disagree with the whole premise,” Roberts continues. “Because I don’t think it’s us versus them. I think we succeed. And the fear is that if we both don’t succeed, then we both fail and the corner doesn’t get any better.”

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