By Jeff Maisey
The recent hubbub concerning food trucks and restaurants in downtown Norfolk is not unique. The issue is being contested in cities across America.
In August of 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported “Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and Seattle are among the cities enacting laws that restrict where food trucks can serve customers in proximity to their rivals and for how long. Some food-truck operators argue that they shouldn’t be punished for offering an innovative service.”
In Boston, the food truck scene began in 2011 with 15 vehicles. That number is expected to rise to 56 food trucks this April, according to Boston.com. The city also has 20 public food truck locations for the mobile vendors to operate, and City regulations prevent trucks from opening within 100 feet of a stationary competitor serving the same type of food.
On January 23, 2013, WCCO, a CBS news affiliate in Minneapolis, said “The skyway, just above 6th and Marquette, is becoming a ground zero in the food truck fight. It’s here where the trucks tend to concentrate on warm summer days. Problem is, they are lined up just below a skyway filled with brick and mortar restaurants.”
Restaurateurs in the Minnesota city want their city council to change ordinances for more protection from circling predators.
On January 24, 2013, the Times-Picayne in New Orleans filed a news report stating “An expected attempt by New Orleans City Council President Stacy Head to liberalize city regulations for food trucks is drawing opposition even before Head formally presents her proposals. Head has indicated she will introduce an ordinance to ease restrictions on food trucks. The council could not vote on the issue until next month at the earliest.
“The ordinance is expected to propose expanding the area where food trucks can operate, increasing the total number of permits for such trucks and allowing them to stay longer in one spot.
“The prospect that food trucks might for the first time be permitted to operate in the Central Business District and to sell their wares near regular restaurants apparently is raising the ire of some restaurateurs.”
Turf wars are nothing new, of course. Oil companies have long battled for position at traffic intersections. When Exxon opens a gas station on one corner, BP, Shell and Texaco grab the three others. In the fast food world, where McDonald’s goes Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC and Taco Bell soon follow. That competition for competition sake also plays out these days between big-box pharmacy chains.
At the heart of the food truck issue is whether brick-and-mortar locally-owned restaurants that pay taxes, rent and employ lots of people should be protected against the trendy of late meals on wheels.
Food trucks do not seem to threaten upscale and fashionable restaurants relying primarily on a dinner crowd and those featuring a nightlife bar atmosphere. It is those restaurants that are mainly a lunchtime business, having to make ends meet on what comes in the door during the narrow 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM window of opportunity, that are at risk. Numerous establishments in the downtown Norfolk area do just that. They need office workers, bankers, lawyers and convention attendees to support their Monday through Friday daytime operation. And food trucks could take a significant bite out of that small pie.
“If we were in a bigger city, like New York or Chicago, where there are millions of people to support all of the restaurants and all the food trucks, it would be phenomenal,” said Robert Soscia, owner and operator of Famous Uncle Al’s Hot Dogs in downtown Norfolk on Granby Street. “But we’re in downtown Norfolk with a small population in struggling times, so it just doesn’t work. Everything is just spread too thin right now.”
Soscia’s concern that downtown Norfolk lacks the critical mass of people is echoed by others.
“I don’t dislike food trucks,” said Philip Decker, owner of d’Egg Diner, with locations on Main Street in downtown and on Hampton Blvd near Larchmont. “They’re cool and trendy all across the nation, but I think downtown Norfolk is not ready at this point. Some people that are for the food trucks argue that people are going to come downtown to go to the food trucks. That I don’t agree with. I think it’s going to split-up a pie that’s not that big. Once we have another hotel and convention center I think we could have a food truck every block. But not right now.”
Chris Hill, who owns the downtown lunch spot 3 Way Café, has mixed feelings.
“As a restaurant owner it could go two different ways – you either absolutely love them or you’re fighting for sales and see them as a big threat,” said Hill. “At the same time we’re trying to move forward for positive change and we have to find a way to work together. Restaurants who know who they are as a company with a loyal clientele should do fine; it’s the ones without that that are most worried.”
According to Lori Crouch, spokeswoman for the City of Norfolk, the city is currently evaluating options for food trucks in the downtown area.
“Council requested the city staff provide a recommendation and bring our findings to them at the end of February during an informal meeting,” she said. “They will have an opportunity to discuss the recommendation, but I do not expect a vote at that meeting. Food trucks were always allowed in Norfolk on commercial properties and with the permission of the property owner, though not in downtown.”
Both the Downtown Norfolk Council and Downtown Norfolk Civic League are in favor of allowing food trucks to operate in the corridor.
“The Downtown Norfolk Civic League supports food trucks because they align with our larger goal of creating a more vibrant downtown,” said Kevin Murphy, president of the Downtown Norfolk Civic League. Murphy also heads up Re:Vision Norfolk, whose Drew Ungvarsky submitted the original application for ordinance revisions. “Outdoor activities such as biking, busking, and dining should be encouraged in urban centers because they contribute to a vibrancy that attracts more residents, more visitors, and more businesses. And, when done right, food trucks increase economic activity to the benefit of traditional restaurants and retail establishments.”
Murphy’s recommendation is shared by Mary Miller, President of the Downtown Norfolk Council.
“The Board of Directors took action in December (2012) to support the effort to allow food trucks in downtown,” said Miller. “That position was presented to the Planning Commission at their public hearing in December. The Planning Commission was positive in their approval of permitting food trucks in downtown. The next step is for it to go to City Council.”
Miller went on to explain that in many ways “food trucks can be looked at as incubator businesses, an opportunity for somebody to have a start-up and maybe get to a point where they could move into a bricks-and-mortar business.”
An area where food trucks seem like a natural fit is at local breweries where food is not served. O’Connor Brewing Company, for example, is located in an industrial business zone in Norfolk where eateries are absent. O’Connor on occasions asks food truck operators to be present during days when its tasting room is serving.
Another positive example is The Birch Bar, located in the Lamberts Point section of West Ghent. The Birch features exotic beers from around the globe but offers an extremely limited food menu. Hubcap Grill, a popular Norfolk food truck, often parks out front to serve Birch beer drinkers with the blessing of owners Ben and Malia.
Hampton Roads is home to less than a dozen food truck operators. The originator is Evan Harrell, owner of Hubcap Grill, perhaps the most popular food truck in the 757 region.
“We started January 2012,” said Harrell. “I was living in Annapolis and spent a lot of time in DC and Baltimore. I noticed food trucks were becoming more prevalent. I was going to open a small restaurant in Annapolis and that didn’t work, so I said, ‘I’ll get a food truck.’ Annapolis’ regulations were not such that they allowed food trucks so instead of going in and joining the club in DC I’m going to be the first one in Norfolk.”
Harrell purchased a food truck in New Jersey and moved back to his hometown of Norfolk.
“Our food is a World Street Food inspired menu. We didn’t just want to be a taco truck or hotdog truck. So we have taken inspiration from other cultures that have a tremendous respect for street food. You go to Asia and the Caribbean…there are stalls of food set up. People are grilling right there in front of you. I think that is so cool. So I wanted to really pay homage to those guys. So we take the global community of food and put our spin on it.”
Menu prices range from $5-$8 at the Hubcap Grill.
Negative reaction to food trucks took Harrell by surprise.
“That was so shocking,” he said. “When I moved back to Norfolk I was under the impression I was going to be able to operate similarly as an ice cream truck. I spoke to the city’s zoning department and they said zoning doesn’t allow for food trucks. I thought, of course, downtown is going to want food trucks; Ghent is going to want them. Getting deeper into it I realized the opposition was coming from the very communities I moved back to Norfolk to help support.”
The Rite Aid store on 21st Street recently launched a grand reopening and invited food trucks, including Hubcap Grill, to be part of the festivities in its parking lot. Food trucks are currently allowed to operate on private property.
Harrell said he had permits in-hand to operate, yet he still faced opposition from the community.
“Several Ghent businesses went to the Rite Aid and demanded that we not hold the event.”
While downtown Norfolk may by-and-large be in favor of allowing food trucks to operate, the neighborhood and business section of Ghent are not as willing.
“The Ghent Business Association Board has voted on at least two occasions unanimously to not allow food trucks in Ghent,” said Jack Plumgren, president of the Ghent Business Association and owner of the Rapid Refill franchise on Colley Avenue. “A couple of primary reasons are that the restaurants are the uniqueness and backbone of Ghent. Anything we can do to encourage restaurants in Ghent we are going to do.
“Secondarily, Ghent has a parking problem. Food trucks would not bring parking spaces. Any new restaurant that opens is required to have a certain number of parking spaces. Food trucks would be counter to that.
“The restaurants in Ghent are part of the community, part of our fabric. They are supportive of community activities; they support many of the local charities and we don’t feel food trucks would have the same loyalty to the community.”
Hubcap Grill operator Evan Harrell disagrees with that sentiment.
“I pay 11.5% taxes in Norfolk,” said Harrell. “If I grow I plan to hire more people. Food trucks have to operate out of a kitchen they have to rent. I’m completely licensed in every way with $4 million worth of insurance. The argument, to me, that just because they (restaurants) have to pay an excessive amount of rent I have no sympathy for that. That isn’t an argument against a food truck.”
Thad Doumar of the world famous Doumar’s on Monticello Avenue, home to the original ice cream cone and specializing in curb service is firmly opposed to food trucks.
“We in-place locations invest in the land and building and pay handsome tribute to the city fathers to do so, at locations where we have to make it work,” said Doumar. “These food trucks are absolutely less invested in the local area and can cherry pick spots that steal business away from fixed-spot locations
“We are required by the city to provide bathrooms and water to customers free of charge. These food trucks have none of these requirements and thus operate at a lower overhead. We are also required to maintain trash removal to keep our locations litter free.
“We are subject to surprise health inspections which keep our establishments cleaner and in theory translating into a better product reaching a customer. I am not sure how the city would endeavor to inspect these trucks to ensure that a quality product reaches a customer.
“I know these are desperate financial times for governments at every level, and the governmental entities are busy seeking every revenue source with reckless abandon. I question the premise that having food trucks on our streets will bring any additional revenues to the city. The food trucks themselves will not attract additional business from outside the area and thus no increase in restaurant revenue will accrue to the city.”
Doumar said he would like to see the city concentrate more on supporting local businesses that actually bring business to the area, and thus translate into greater revenue for the city coffers. Doumar feels local owners have more at risk and thus more at stake, so they either succeed or die.
Andrea Di Carlo, owner/chef of La Bella Ghent, grew-up in New York City. He’s well aware of food trucks and the service they provide.
“As a consumer I like food trucks,” said DiCarlo. “As a business owner it has the possibility that it could hurt. In Ghent we are so concentrated with restaurants if the city doesn’t put the right ordinances in place these food trucks could pull up in front of any restaurant, sell the food for half the price because we pay rent and have all these other expenses associated with owning a restaurant. Food trucks don’t contribute to the economy as much as restaurants. Coming from New York, I like food trucks, but as a business owner I wouldn’t want a food truck pulling up within 500 feet of my restaurant.”
Jerry Meltsner, who owns No Frill Bar and Grill, wants the city to limit hours and limit locations for food trucks as well as define when they can be operating on public or private property not to compete with existing brick and mortar restaurants.
Ted Warren, owner of Charlie’s Café, suggests food trucks could be an asset if they are positioned in one of the food deserts along the Tide track just as D.C. has them along the mall.
“Harbor Park Food Truck Mecca would be a short Tide ride for downtown workers that would benefit public transportation, ease congestion on Main Street, and not interfere with brick and mortar restaurants that are just holding on due to the slim profit margins of the past four years,” said Warren. “Downtown is still too fragile to have two or three trucks cherry pick from local businesses.”
Pelon’s, a Baja California inspired Mexican eatery with locations on Pacific Avenue in Virginia Beach and in Norfolk’s restaurant-heavy Ghent business district, is unique in that they also operate a food truck.
Pelon’s “food truck” is actually a food trailer that is hauled location to location. Since April 2012 it has been positioned exclusively at the Dam Neck navy base entrance but is now used on weekends for events. It is brightly colored with signage. They serve tacos and burritos.
While owner/operator Robyn Muscara is enthusiastic about food trucks she also acknowledges she would have a problem with someone pulling into the parking lot of her permanent restaurant and selling fish tacos out of a truck.
“It is hard being a restaurant owner,” she said. “If a food truck was parked across the street in a different parking lot I wouldn’t have a problem with it. There is good and bad with the trucks. I think it has to be regulated. We have to respect restaurants.”