By Colin Campbell | News Observer
RALEIGH — With the third installment of a 10-block food truck rodeo coming Sunday, downtown Raleigh is growing more comfortable with the mobile eateries. Some businesses – wary of food trucks in the past – are now calling for looser rules to make the trucks a more common sight in the city center.
About 70 food trucks and other vendors will descend on Fayetteville Street this weekend, drawing thousands of people and filling the street from the State Capitol to City Plaza.
And while the first two Downtown Food Truck Rodeos have been hailed as successes – even brick-and-mortar restaurants have gotten a boost – the city’s rules generally keep trucks parked at suburban office parks and breweries far from downtown.
Logan King, who owns Raleigh Screen Print on Cabarrus Street, wants to change that. He says the city is setting a double standard by suspending its regulations for special events like the rodeos. He learned about the rules the hard way: he recently invited a couple of trucks to his T-shirt shop during the First Friday art walk, and police told them to leave because they’d parked on the street.
“I think First Friday is by far the best application for food trucks in Raleigh,” he said, pointing out that most galleries and shops only serve wine and cheese. “These trucks are designed to be parked in a parallel parking spot, open a window and serve to the curb.”
King’s plan for trucks along downtown streets got a cool response this week from the Raleigh City Council. The council has already relaxed the rules twice in the past three years, and members told King they aren’t likely to review the issue again.
“This went through a very extensive process … where we had a number of restaurant owners come out” in support of restrictions, Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “Unless you’re going to bring out a bunch of people who tell us that they want (food trucks) parking in public spaces, I’m afraid this is going to stand where it is.”
King says he’s determined to answer Baldwin’s challenge. On Friday, he launched an online petition ( chn.ge/136Eq1t) calling on the city to issue permits for trucks to set up shop in on-street parking spots. “Food trucks are insanely popular and should be a consistent part of the downtown Raleigh lunch and dinner scene,” the petition reads.
A boost to business
Thanks to the summer rodeos, downtown restaurants are becoming more supportive of food trucks. Greg Hatem, who owns five eateries, says his Raleigh Times restaurant has been busier on food truck Sundays. He suspects the reason is simple: After 45 minutes waiting in line for a burger, some folks give up and head to his place instead.
“For the most part, it’s been great,” Hatem said, though he added that event organizers need to communicate better with established restaurants.
Eschelon Hospitality – with three Fayetteville Street restaurants – has also gotten more traffic from the rodeos, but spokeswoman Tara Zechini says that doesn’t mean it’s time for a food truck free-for-all. “We definitely don’t want them parked outside our restaurants all the time,” she said.
Hatem, however, doesn’t think the trucks will entice away many diners from his sit-down spots. “We don’t think food trucks are competition to brick-and mortar-restaurants,” he said.
Hatem – cited in the past as a supporter of truck restrictions – said he’s even purchased two food trucks himself, and he’ll use them to bring The Pit’s barbecue to festivals and other events. The move is another sign that trucks have joined the mainstream dining scene.
Durham less restrictive
Food truck owners say Raleigh falls behind Durham in food truck acceptance. “I tend to stick toward Durham, just because their ordinances are less restrictive,” said Mark Thomas, who owns CJ’s Street Food.
Durham requires trucks to stay at least 50 feet from the nearest restaurant; Raleigh’s required distance is double that. Truck owners also say the permitting process is easier in the Bull City.
“There’s no real clear-cut explanations on what to do in certain situations,” said Nic Baliva, who owns Blue Sky Dining. “It’s almost like the Wild West right now for food trucks. … Even though I’m a resident of Wake County, I was more than happy to take my business to Durham County.”
Truck owners say the huge crowds at the downtown rodeos are sending Raleigh leaders a message: the trend is here to stay.
“I think Raleigh had the wake-up call a few years ago, but they just kept hitting the snooze button,” Baliva said.