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Food trucks starving for Raleigh approval

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Mike Stenke was collecting unemployment a year ago when a friend dared him to create an artisan square-pan pizza like the kind that hails from their hometown, Detroit—a famous workingman's slice dating back to the 1930s.

Stenke traveled back to the Motor City and bought dozens of pizzas. He deconstructed each slice, spreading the sauce across napkins and dissecting the ingredients.

Three months later, Stenke had his recipe, and he served his friend a slice. Satisfied yet unconvinced, the friend swore Stenke could not have made it—he must have ordered the pizza from afar. No, Stenke corrected, the pizza came from a Raleigh oven. Soon he had his business plan: A food truck serving Detroit-style, double-rise, triple-baked, foil-wrapped pizza would be his ticket back to the working world.

"I started this partly because of that dare, and partly because I wanted great pizza," he says, as he pulls a 40-year-old pan from the oven. "There is great pizza here, but not this."

He purchased a 1977 step van from Tampa, Fla., installed an oven and new water and electrical lines. He navigated the list of improvements the van would require to pass Wake County health inspections and be eligible to receive a business license. He stamped his son's face on the side of the van. He hired himself as chef, businessman, mechanic, electrician and plumber.

Klausie's Pizza was born.

Well, only half-born. A Raleigh ordinance prohibits motorized food trucks from operating within the city limits; only nonmotorized ice cream and hot dog carts are allowed. Food truck operators are restricted to applying for event permits, which cost $60 and are valid for 20 days or four consecutive weekends in a single spot.

Now Stenke is leading a group of current and potential food truck operators who are lobbying Raleigh city leaders to change the law to allow two trucks per block, as long as they aren't parked within 75 feet of a restaurant. The Raleigh City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee has determined that the current ordinance is unclear and that police have difficulty enforcing it.

"I slaved and slaved and slaved to get this truck to get that permit and get that business license," he says. "And then people say, 'Sorry, congrats on your business license, but you can't use it in Raleigh, best regards.'"

The Downtown Raleigh Alliance is studying how other towns, including Portland, Ore., regulate food carts and is surveying downtown merchants for feedback. The alliance plans to issue a report to the Law and Public Safety Committee in two weeks.

"I think right now we're candidly ambivalent," the alliance's president and CEO David Diaz says. "On the one hand, we like enhancing the options for customers coming to downtown for visitors in terms of variety of food and the way it's delivered, but on the other hand we kind of have to manage the way that this is set up."

Diaz says that over the past year, revenue from downtown restaurants has increased by 16 percent. "That's the lens by which we'll look at it," he says. "If we were just starving for any business, I think you'd probably see this just supported without much research. In general, this can complement what's going on downtown, but we have to research it a little more."

Stenke says trucks would help create an exciting, funky atmosphere if they were allowed to park near the convention center, on Glenwood South or next to Moore Square transit center. Trucks would not compete with restaurants, but instead they would attract people who may patronize other downtown businesses.

A food truck can also launch a brick-and-mortar restaurant. For example, Only Burger, a successful food truck in Durham, now has a location on Shannon Drive.

Most nights, Stenke parks outside of Big Boss Brewery on Wicker Drive, north of downtown. The brewery owners, who Stenke calls "the patron saints of food trucks," allow him to set up in their private parking lot.

Stenke can operate at N.C. State University, but he says it only allows one food truck per day on campus. However, Duke, he says, allows all food trucks on campus and takes 20 percent of the sales. Stenke does some business in Durham, where food truck are thriving, but his van only gets eight miles to the gallon, and it's not intended for commuting.

"I just wanted to make a world-class pizza. I didn't want to change the world, but now I'm this guy that's going out and making something happen that wasn't happening before," Stenke says. "There's a lot of trucks, a lot of interest, a lot of fun ideas just waiting to happen. All we need is the ability to sell."

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