Mobile vendors want to be allowed downtown
ASHEVILLE — Don Buscher proclaimed his Lebanese chicken wrap “excellent” as he stood next to the Gypsy Queen Cuisine on Wednesday.
“It beats running to some fast-food restaurant,” said Buscher, the finance controller for UNC Asheville’s dining services who bought lunch from the truck stationed at Virginia Avenue and Haywood Road in West Asheville.
Buscher said he would love to visit food trucks downtown when he needs a quick and tasty lunch.
But the chances of him getting that chicken shoarma in the center city just got slimmer as such foil-wrapped goodies take center stage in a local political drama.
Food truck vendors, who represent a growing trend in the city’s active culinary scene, are trying to change a 25-year-old rule against them operating downtown.
Some vocal and politically connected restaurateurs, however, are pushing back. Joining them are tourism officials who say truck vendors will cheapen the “Foodtopia” brand they have built around local bricks-and-mortar restaurants.
This month, the argument escalated as food truck supporters accused the chairman of the Downtown Commission, Dwight Butner, of “filibustering” a vote on compromise rules.
The commission, a first step on the way to approval by the City Council, was considering allowing trucks, with restrictions on location, time and other operations.
Six of seven City Council members weighed in on the issue Wednesday with three supporting trucks in the city center, one against the idea and two undecided.
Leading the truck charge is Suzy Salwa Phillips, who operates her Gypsy Queen Cuisine at spots around downtown in hopes of one day opening her own permanent restaurant.
Phillips said she has tried for about a year to make the change.
“I was upset from what I was hearing because I thought we were going forward with this,” said the Lebanese immigrant after the May 13 commission meeting.
The compromise includes requirements that trucks be in landscaped parking lots and not take up parking spaces valuable to restaurants.
Butner said the commission would first need to conduct an economic impact study.
Butner, who owns Vincenzo’s Restaurant, said allowing trucks could send some already struggling eateries over the brink.
“This is kind of like the baker, the chicken and the pig talking about breakfast. The baker thinks it’s a great idea. The chicken thinks it’s a pain in the butt and for the pig, it’s a life-or-death issue,” he said.
Many restaurateurs took a risk and invested in downtown when it was still mostly empty, spending tens of thousands of dollars to renovate historic buildings, he said. Truck vendors would be able to take advantage of the now vibrant downtown while bearing little burden, he said.
Raising the $10,000 to $30,000 for the study and carrying it out would mean a vote wouldn’t come until after June.
At that point the issue wouldn’t end up with the City Council until at least August, when the weather and people’s desire to eat outside might begin to turn.
Other commission members, such as Kitty Love, said they think trucks could actually go after different customers from those looking for a restaurant experience. As for a study, there are other alternatives, she said.
“I think we could call some other downtown commissioners in other cities,” said Love. “This is starting to sound like a filibuster.”
Joe Minicozzi, Asheville Downtown Association executive director, said he offered a Portland, Ore., study that looked into some effects of food trucks, but that didn’t include a full economic impact study.
The association has done a survey that showed a near 50-50 split among merchants and other association members, Minicozzi said. The survey is still under way and can be found at ashevilledowntown.org.
If the issue gets past the commission, it then goes to the Planning and Zoning Board, which will then make a recommendation to the City Council.
Council members appear to be leaning toward allowing the trucks, though current supporters — Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith — are one vote shy of a four-vote majority.
“Some food truck operations could add to downtown’s already great culinary reputation,” said Newman, adding that carefully considered regulations would be needed.
Councilman Jan Davis, however, said trucks could harm the restaurants at the core of the center-city economy.
Council members Esther Manheimer and Bill Russell said they were undecided. Mayor Terry Bellamy couldn’t be reached Wednesday.