By Heidi Knapp Rinella | Las Vegas Review-Journal
Aletta Rowry and Maria Razo used to have lunch delivered, or hike a few blocks to find a food truck. But one day last week, they found it steps from their Las Vegas City Hall workplace.
Rowry and Razo had decided to check out the food from the Slow Cal BBQ truck, which had won the 11 a.m. Aug. 6 City Hall slot in the city’s recent food-truck lottery.
The lottery is a pilot program that will be re-evaluated after six months, said city spokesman Jace Radke. The food-truck owners who participated in it were eligible for one of three spaces in downtown Las Vegas: near City Hall, 1 Lewis Ave.; in front of the Bonneville Transportation Center, 100 E. Bonneville Ave.; and in front of the Regional Justice Center, 400 S. Third St.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who requested the measure that led to the designated spaces, said it is a compromise between downtown restaurant owners, who complained about competition from food trucks that have much lower overhead expenses than they do, and the food-truck owners, who at times have found it difficult to find spots downtown to conduct business.
The designated spots, scheduled for weekdays, work in tandem with the 150-foot buffer between trucks and restaurants earlier mandated by the city. (For a schedule, go to www.LasVegasNV.gov/foodtruck.)
“Everybody gives a little bit,” Goodman said. “Nobody’s going to be 100 percent happy.”
Her idea was, it seems, born of a bit of personal frustration.
“The concept of having stationary places was something I had thought of because every time I came downtown with the family, I wanted to find the food trucks and I never knew where they were,” she said. “We have some of the finest chefs in the world in food trucks doing great things and a wonderful new way of doing business where you keep your overhead to a minimum. For startups, it’s great.”
That’s exactly why Melvin Johnson, owner of Slow Cal BBQ, entered the lottery that led to the spot near City Hall. Johnson, who is in his third year in the business, moved his family to Las Vegas four months ago from San Diego and has been trying to get a foothold.
“Being a new truck, it’s been hard to find locations here,” Johnson said, adding that he had operated six days a week in San Diego and was reduced to three days a week here. “It helps us to get our brand out there.”
Some of the food-truck events, he said, charge $400 or more for a slot, so he was grateful the city started the lottery system.
Keith McCoy, event coordinator for Slidin’ Thru — generally considered the first upscale food truck in Las Vegas and one of the most recognized — praised the idea.
“The city has done a great job and I applaud them for a tremendous effort,” he said.
But he said Slidin’ Thru didn’t participate in the lottery.
“The locations they picked weren’t solid enough for us to commit for a long-term thing,” said McCoy, who added that he would’ve preferred a spot in the Fremont East district. “We are, however, watching very closely.”
McCoy said foot traffic at City Hall doesn’t provide sufficient volume, and that both the budget of many transit riders and the time they have to spend at the transportation center make that a weak location.
“I take the bus,” he said. “As a transit rider, I’m saying there’s no time for that.”
At the center, Tony Sottile, who was manning the Hawaiian Shaved Ice truck for his daughter, Elizabeth, had time to talk. He said it was easy to roll into the designated spot, but he hadn’t yet spent enough time there to determine if it would make sense from a business standpoint.
“We’re an event-driven truck, normally,” Sottile said.
Andrew Schoenwetter, owner of the Melteez truck, which he’s been operating since November, said he was happy to get his Regional Justice Center spot in the lottery.
“It helped me out a lot,” Schoenwetter said. “As a new food truck, trying to find space in the city was tough.”
McCoy conceded that the lottery is a great equalizer. Before, he said, a food truck might show up in front of the Regional Justice Center at 5 a.m. and claim the spot for the day in a routine that scared off the competition.
As Slidin’ Thru has become more established (it also has a brick-and-mortar location at 6410 N. Durango Drive), McCoy said its business model has changed, and like many food trucks Slidin’ Thru spends the bulk of its time at events and pre-arranged spots.
“We are more event-oriented, but we still put our schedule up each week” on the website, he said. In the early days, they did more “hot spots.”
“We’d go to the corner of, say, Fort Apache (Road) and Tropicana (Avenue) and see what we can do,” McCoy said. “We did that in the beginning, to get the name out there. We haven’t done that on the regular for quite a long time.”
Even though they have to pay to be at some events, he said, “we know there’s going to be a large crowd and we know the cash sale is going to be justifiable,” such as First Friday and the monthly Vegas StrEATS food-truck festivals.
“A lot more of what we do is invited,” he adds. “We know that they’ve got 50 employees who don’t have a food option nearby, so if we go there our chances of selling more food are better, versus pulling up on a street corner and telling the world where we’re at.”
Which must be music to Wes Myles’ ears. Myles, who owns the Arts Factory and Bar + Bistro downtown, has been a frequent critic of food trucks.
“The food trucks believe that there’s undue favoritism or protectionism going on,” Myles said. “What they don’t realize is that they’re the ones getting the undue favoritism or protectionism.”
Myles said his chief complaint is that some of the truck owners think they should be able to conduct business wherever they want.
“Why don’t they have to go on private land and compete like you do or I do?” he asks.
Myles likes the 150-foot buffer.
“The idea of giving a restaurant a buffer is an incentive to bring long-term investment to an area,” he said. “Having food trucks in a set location will perpetuate a temporary thing. It’s not a long-term income source for the city or an improvement.”
On the other hand, Myles acknowledges the contribution the trucks make to the community.
“There is a social, ‘fun’ portion of the food trucks,” he said. “It’s part of our society, so it isn’t something that’s bad or wrong. I think that the government needs to play a role in this deal.”
Goodman, for her part, said she appreciated that the restrictions came about through compromise.
“It’s not about big government putting its fist in,” she said.
Meanwhile, the food-truck business continues to evolve in Las Vegas. Johnson said he’s helping to put together gatherings, such as one from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Tenaya Creek Brewing Co. at 3101 N. Tenaya Way, that are free for the trucks.
And McCoy said Slidin’ Thru has been asked by a property owner on the Strip to help put together a food-truck lot at 6176 Las Vegas Blvd. South. It started last week; a maximum of two will be permitted at any given time.
“What we’re looking to do is put food trucks at that location from 11 to 3 for lunch and 5 to 9ish every day of the week,” he said. “That’s something they have in other cities.”
“Food trucks coming out in packs of two or more causes excitement,” Johnson says. “It gives a good variety. You might want barbecue and I might want tacos. People can come out and still get what they want.”
He said that overall, he’s felt welcomed in the local food-truck community.
“We have a good little network of trucks that work together here,” he said, comparing it to one industry with lots of workers.
“Our trucks are our cubicles, but we all work together,” he said.
“For the most part, in the food-truck community we operate as a family,” McCoy said. “So nine times out of 10, we have each others’ backs.
“Occasionally, things may come up. That’s family.”