Food Truck Debate Gets Heated at Raleigh City Council Committee

Raleigh's "Valentino's Pizza Truck"
Raleigh's "Valentino's Pizza Truck"

By Andrea Weigl – Staff writer | NewsObserver.com

Today’s Raleigh city council’s law and public safety committee revisited the debate about whether to let food trucks operate in the city limits.

The result: No decision yet.

The committee hopes to have city staff develop what I would call a “baby step” ordinance to be put up for comment during the April 5 public hearing.

Right now, generally speaking, food trucks aren’t allowed to operate on public streets. (They can get a special permit for a limited amount of time but that’s more for special events, like when they close down Fayetteville Street for Raleigh Wide Open.) The trucks can operate on private property outside downtown Raleigh. (Hence, the food trucks gathering at Big Boss Brewery on Thursdays and Fridays.)

What city council members and city staff are considering as possible “baby step” proposals include: Letting trucks operate on private property in downtown Raleigh. Letting trucks gather on designated city-owned property, such as near the new amphitheater. Another idea floated out there but not really discussed was allowing trucks one day a week around Moore Square.

When Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin asked restaurant owners and food truck operators to speak, it got heated at times.

Alex Amra, owner of Tobacco Road Sports Cafe, said he didn’t like the idea of having trucks parked outside his Glenwood Avenue sports bar espcially during an economic downturn.

“I can’t put my restaurant in drive and go somewhere else,” he says.

He pointed out that there’s nothing to stop a pizza truck from parking outside a pizza restaurant and offering direct competition with a lower overhead costs.

At that point, Mike Stenke, the owner of Klausie’s Pizza truck, piped up: “But I won’t.”

Amra responded: “Yeah, sure.”

That was likely the tensest moment between brick-and-mortar restaurant owners and food truck operators. Those in the former camp raised concerns about creating unfair competition for those who have invested thousands, if not millions, into their businesses in the blossoming downtown and Glenwood South business areas. They also raised concerns about food safety and health inspection for food trucks and that these trucks would take valuable and scarce parking spots from customers.

One of the most eloquent speakers on the other side was Steven Valentino, owner of Valentino’s Italian Food Truck. He talked about being unemployed and taking money that he and his wife had saved for a down payment on a house to start his food truck business. Valentino says he doesn’t want to operate in Glenwood South, has no interest in being overwhelmed by stumbling drunk people wanting food. But he does want to make a living and one day hopes to open his own brick-and-mortar establishment.

Looking across the table at the owners of Zely & Ritz and Helios, Valentino said, “I want to be you…I love what you guys do. I want to be a restaurateur.”

And so, the debate continues.

As soon as I know when this issue is on the agenda again, I’ll let you know.