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Charlotte food truck vendors criticize proposed regulations

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com

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    See the planning department’s proposal at http://bit.ly/RGItxs.



Charlotte food truck vendors are protesting proposed city regulations that they say would hurt their industry, which has grown increasingly popular in recent years.

One of the possible changes they’re most concerned about is a rule that would prevent food trucks from operating within 100 feet of a restaurant, nightclub or bar – which would make uptown operations a challenge. They also would face tougher restrictions in residential areas.

Some of the rules under consideration are designed to make it easier for the vendors, including new permitting requirements.

“I don’t think they’re intentionally trying to harm food trucks by any stretch of the imagination,” said David Stuck, who co-founded The Tin Kitchen, a food truck and catering company, in 2012. “But I do think they don’t understand what it is we do.”

There are more than 60 food trucks operating in Charlotte, offering everything from cupcakes to fajitas to grilled cheese, and employing hundreds. More than a dozen consistently gather for weekly Food Truck Friday in South End.

The owners say they got involved in a citizen advisory group hoping that their input would help the city understand what food truck operators need to thrive. But a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department draft proposal wasn’t what they expected.

Planning Manager Katrina Young, who’s been leading the citizen advisory meetings, says nothing in the proposed draft is permanent and that it’s meant to open a dialogue.

Many food trucks work with local craft breweries that don’t serve food, which is mutually beneficial. That wouldn’t be allowed under the proposal, but Young said that may need to be re-evaluated.

Also at risk would be bringing food trucks to events such as birthday parties and weddings in residential areas. A number of food trucks, including Stuck’s Tin Kitchen, get nearly half their business from such events.

Operators, fearing that proposed changes could permanently alter their business models, are responding with an online petition posted to the newly formed Charlotte Food Truck Association’s website – www. charlottefoodtrucks.org.

The petition has several thousand signatures, said Dave Trauner, who owns the Sticks and Cones ice cream mobile truck with his wife, Karen, who created the petition just before midnight Friday.

Restaurateur Matthew Pera, co-owner of Lumiere in Myers Park and The Liberty in South End, said he likes the fun food truck events and “the grass-roots entrepreneurial spirit they represent.”

But, he added, as the food-truck industry becomes more established in Charlotte’s business community, they should expect more regulations – and more taxes – will follow.

“We have two restaurants, and we have to play by a pretty specific set of rules and regulations,” Pera said. “Welcome to our world.”

A similar battle

Young said that the planning department likely won’t have a final recommendation for the City Council until late summer at the earliest.

This battle is similar to one fought in 2008 and 2009, when the city tightened regulations on the mobile vendors.

At the time, there were several dozen taco trucks in the Charlotte area, and police and public officials complained that the ones lining South Boulevard and Central Avenue near immigrant neighborhoods were attracting crime. Residents also complained that the trucks, which mostly catered to laborers coming home from work, were contributing to noise, traffic and fumes.

The resulting ordinance limited operating hours to between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., banned vendors from operating within 400 feet of a residential district and only gave vendors 90 days to be in one location.

The proposal would allow food trucks to operate longer hours in those areas: from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. In other areas, they could operate between 6 a.m. and midnight.

In addition, the proposal makes it easier for food trucks to gather. The current ordinance prohibits them from operating within 400 feet of each other – which Food Truck Friday violates. The proposal eliminates this restriction.

Instead, it would limit one food truck per half-acre lot, two trucks per 1-acre lot and three on lots of more than an acre. A property owner would need a zoning permit to have more.

But even under the eased restrictions, Food Truck Friday still wouldn’t comply without a permit.

Rachel Easterling, general manager of Phat Burrito, which is adjacent to the Food Truck Friday rally, said the weekly gathering has doubled their sales.

“It draws maybe 2,500 to 3,000 people on a nice night, and when the food trucks sell out of food, there’s a couple hundred people that come over to the restaurant,” Easterling said.

The proposed rules also would decrease the number of permits that food trucks would need.

Currently, each food truck location needs a permit, which expires after 90 days. The proposal would allow a vendor to have a one-year permit for up to three locations.

Trauner said he’d like food trucks be able to apply for a single permit that’s valid throughout the city. That would allow them to be truly mobile.

“I guess this is better,” he said, “but it’s changing something that was ludicrous in the first place.”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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