Push to Legalize Food Trucks & Carts Meeting with Controversy

Rich Schultz/The Associated Press Truck manager Steven Ostroth takes a food order on The Taco Truck in Hoboken, N.J., in 2010. Food trucks have grown so popular in some areas that operators are opening restaurants.
Truck manager Steven Ostroth takes a food order on The Taco Truck in Hoboken, N.J., in 2010. Food trucks have grown so popular in some areas that operators are opening restaurants. Rich Schultz/The Associated Press

Brittney Blackshear tempered her expectations ahead of testing her crepe-selling concept at April’s Earth Day festival in Forsyth Park.

“I didn’t do it thinking it would turn into a business. I did it to gauge the response,” Blackshear said. “And the response was beyond any expectations I could have imagined.”

Blackshear estimates she had five minutes of downtime in the four-hour midday rush. Customers kept coming back for more. All asked the same question: “Where are you located?”

Blackshear had no response to those inquiries. She didn’t have a physical store, and at age 24, she lacks the resources to lease and outfit one. She’s launched a catering business since her Earth Day debut, cooking her French treats at weddings and parties.

But to make Crepe A Diem a viable business, Blackshear needs to find an entry point into the market.

The most financially feasible, she said, is one outlawed in Savannah – a food cart or truck, officially known as a mobile food unit.

Blackshear is among a group organizing to challenge local restrictions on street food vending. A mobile food unit operating on a daily basis and selling more than pre-packaged food items is essentially illegal in Savannah.

On-site food prep is prohibited on mobile food units. Existing food carts and trucks sell products prepared in commercial kitchens elsewhere.

Blackshear and her fellow culinary entrepreneurs want to see the law change. They look at the taco trucks and barbecue stands in cities such as Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Los Angeles and see similar potential here.

“The city is growing. Culturally. And food is part of cultural growth,” Blackshear said. “This is a walking-friendly city, a tourist city. Mobile food fits.”

Carla Saunders shows off cupcakes in front of 3 Babes and a Baker, her specialty food truck in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010. Specialty food trucks have quietly sprung up around central Ohio. Neal C. Lauron/The Associated Press

Conflicting interests

Mobile food may fit in Savannah, but owners of several existing brick-and-mortar restaurants insist there isn’t enough room for their businesses and mobile food units.

“I’d be opposed to it,” said Gary Hall, owner of Wright Square Café in the historic district. “They don’t have the overhead we have here. If the movement builds steam, why wouldn’t all of us down here shed our $3,000 a month rent and operate out of a food truck?

“How good would that be for the local economy?”

Restaurateurs like Hall worry about the dilution of business.

Mobile food units work in Austin and New York because those towns feature large populations in concentrated areas. The demand overwhelms the supply of eateries. The trucks and carts don’t steal customers away from the storefronts; they supplement them.

“In terms of foot traffic, Savannah isn’t there yet,” said Judy Davis, owner of The Gallery Espresso downtown. “The risk is a food cart or truck taking enough business away where the existing business is endangered while at the same time the cart isn’t making enough money to survive either. You can end up losing two businesses.”

Proponents of mobile food units argue that any impact on nearby businesses would be minimal. But Wright Square Café’s Hall claims that each new restaurant that opens in the vicinity of his store results in four to six weeks of falloff for his business as customers try the new place.

He believes the addition of several food trucks and carts near his shop would have a similar impact.

“Put four of those food trucks nearby, and that’s equal to another store opening up,” he said. “How many four-to-six week stretches of lost business can you absorb?”

Location, location, location

Operating locations could be the determining factor in whether mobile food units become Savannah’s newest business ventures.

The current ordinance and health department codes protect the brick-and-mortar stores. They not only prohibits on-site cooking but also requires cart and truck operators to own existing stores.

The lemonade and coffee stand that occasionally works Wright Square was operated by a nearby smoothie café owner until recently.

The would-be mobile operators are debating the best approach in terms of operating locations. The large food trucks popular in other cities might not be conducive to historic district streets and areas around the squares, likely among the more desired locations.

Another tack taken elsewhere, such as Charleston, S.C., and Austin, is to set up “food truck circles” that can accommodate several units in vacant lots. Operators lease space from the property owner.

Savannah has plenty of vacant lots, including many in the downtown area.

Not all the mobile entrepreneurs would target the historic district with their business-on-wheels. Johnny and Gabriella DeBeer, proprietors of popular downtown lunch spot Zunzi’s, say there is potential elsewhere, such as near the hospitals, at the Georgia Ports Authority, even in Statesboro near the Georgia Southern campus.

“We get requests for catering and deliveries all the time, and we’re so small we really can’t do much of that,” Gabriella DeBeer said. “If we had a food truck that could go out to those places that would allow us to grow in a way that we could control our costs.”

Zunzi’s isn’t the only restaurant that would like to roll its eats around town and beyond. Representatives from Sammy Green’s and Sandfly BBQ have also shown interest, attending the two meetings held to explore the street food issue.

Those meetings attracted 50 to 70 people, including a pair of city officials as well as one from the Chatham County Health Department. They answered questions and shared processes and procedures.

The push for changes to the mobile food unit restrictions has yet to build enough momentum to reach the city council level. But the culinary entrepreneurs say that cooking timer is about to sound.

“The turnout for the meetings shows just how many people are out there with good products but don’t have access to a kitchen,” Blackshear said. “It won’t be easy for the laws to be changed. But we’ve created a buzz around town, and it is encouraging that the government officials are willing to listen.”