Knoxville, TN: Food Trucks Raise Concerns Among Knoxville Restaurant Owners

Esther Choo • The Daily Beacon Workers at Cruze Farm's Milk Bar serve milk and ice cream from a food truck on Union Ave. during the Farmers Market on Sept. 14.

By Hayley Brundige  |  The Daily Beacon

Esther Choo • The Daily Beacon Workers at Cruze Farm's Milk Bar serve milk and ice cream from a food truck on Union Ave. during the Farmers Market on Sept. 14.
Esther Choo • The Daily Beacon
Workers at Cruze Farm’s Milk Bar serve milk and ice cream from a food truck on Union Ave. during the Farmers Market on Sept. 14.

Swarming the farmers market on weekends, the rise of the food truck has been swift and undeniably impressive.

But for traditional, stationary eateries, that popularity could also be lethal.

This is the dilemma currently facing local restaurateurs as city officials decide whether food truck vendors should be allowed to set up shop on downtown streets.

Twenty-one downtown restaurants, including Trio Café, Soccer Taco and Coolato Gelato, have hired a lawyer to represent their concerns.

“Would any city planner let 30 different restaurants open up within a four-block radius? That’s an unsustainable amount of competition,” said Maggie Cole, co-owner and operater of Steamboat Sandwiches on Market Square with her sister, Rita Anderson. “I think restaurant owners are nervous that once food trucks get the green light we’re just going to be overwhelmed.”

Restaurant owners like Cole and Anderson object to food trucks claiming a prime location downtown without having to pay any permanent overhead costs.

“We are in business, which means that competition is always going to be an issue,” Anderson said. “The real concern here is that the food trucks are held to the same standards that we’re held to financially and with the health department.”

Knoxville Mobile Restaurant Association was formed by a group of food truck owners looking to fight for their right to sell their wares downtown. Hoof Knoxville, Savory and Sweet, Mr. Canteen and Tootsie Truck are among the members of the coalition.

In a letter sent in late August to the city of Knoxville’s business liaison, Patricia Robledo, KMRA outlined the many benefits of having food trucks in the downtown area, including “speed and convenience, culture and increased business activity,” as well as bringing “young, smart, educated and idealistic entrepreneurs to our area.”

Byron Sambat, who runs Savory and Sweet Food Truck with his wife, said allowing food trucks to set up downtown would benefit all surrounding businesses.

“All the research we’ve done shows that the more food trucks you have, the more people come into the downtown area which will bring more tax payers and more money to all the shops down here,” Sambat said from the window of his truck parked on Union Avenue for the Saturday farmers market.

But Sambat is not the only owner to hold this belief.

“I’m having a hard time seeing the restaurant view because we do not have enough restaurants downtown,” Michele Purcell, owner of the Recycled Rock and Cork stand at the Saturday market, said. “Friday nights, you can’t get a table anywhere, so there obviously needs to be more options for the public.”

The conversation heated up with the publishing of a Sept. 6 Metro Pulse blog post entitled, “Downtown Restaurants to Food Trucks: Get Out!” that led to rumors of a restaurant boycott in support of what the article called “younger, hipper chefs on wheels.”

Contrary to this headline, restaurant owners like Cole and Anderson claim to feel no animosity toward food trucks.

“I don’t have any ill will against anyone who wants to own and operate a food truck,” Cole said. “I support entrepreneurship, but we’ve already staked a claim here and now we’re representing ourselves and presenting our concerns to the city.”

City of Knoxville representatives have decided to conduct a pilot program to experiment with the idea of a food truck-inclusive downtown. They hope to produce a city ordinance regarding food trucks by October.

“The pilot program is a trial period before we decide on anything permanent,” Robledo explained. “The food truck movement is a nation-wide phenomenon and we’re studying how other cities, especially Nashville, have regulated food trucks with success.”

Yet, restaurateurs and food truck operators alike seem to have the desire to co-exist peacefully.

“We’re just going to continue to focus on putting out great food and making our customers happy,” Cole said. “That’s what we love to do and that’s why we’re here.”