by Joe Schwartz
Mike Stenke parked his Klausie's Pizza food truck on the corner of Dawson and Hargett streets, just across the street from the Avery C. Upchurch Municipal Building on Tuesday night and handed out two pizzas worth of warm, gooey bite-sized free samples to build favor for proposed zoning changes that would allow him to regularly operate in the city.
John and Karla Schriner of Knightdale each bought a shirt with a picture of a food truck and text reading, “Legalize It.”
“It’s a lot harder for them to get permits here,” Karla said. “A lot of good food trucks stay in Durham and don’t ever come here. It’s just a culture that’s kind of cool, plus you’ve got to support your local independent business no matter what.”
“He seems like the kind of guy who is at the forefront of this and really a leader,” McCraven said. “I hope it really works out for Raleigh. We need it. It’s a scene.”
Inside City Hall, elected officials were considering text amendments that would allow trucks to park on private lots provided that they have permission from the owners and that they are 50 feet away from eateries. The public hearing stirred the debate between mobile food operators, both existing and aspiring, and brick-and-mortar restaurant owners, who cried “unfair competition.”
The proposal also would require food truck proprietors to safely dispose of waste and grease each day and does not allow for signage or audio amplification.
“I want to applaud the City Council for the great work they’ve done working toward this proposal,” said Stenke, who has been pushing the council since September to draft rules to allow food trucks.
“It goes a long way toward making a level playing field.”
But several restaurant owners such as Alex Amra of Tobacco Road said the field isn’t level as long as truck owners don’t have to pay rent.
“I love competition,” he said after the hearing. “But I love competition that has the same overhead and bills I do.”
Niall Hanley, who owns Hibernian Irish Restaurant and Pub on Glenwood Avenue, said that restaurants can be just as creative and artistic as food trucks and says allowing the mobile vendors in the city will stifle small restaurants from opening up.
Two McDonald’s operators argued that their locally-owned franchises would see a decrease in business if food trucks were allowed in the city and would have to lay off workers. A pizza shop owner said she built her business model on late-night sales and said food trucks would cripple her.
Their arguments didn’t appeal to Jonathan Lubekcy, a Raleigh resident and military veteran.
“I fought for this country. I like freedom. It’s really simple. It really bothers me when I hear people standing up and saying, ‘We want to ban these entrepreneurs because we don’t like competition,’” Lubecky said. “There’s a simple solution to competition—build a better product.”
Food truck operators contend that they provide a low-cost startup opportunity for aspiring restaurant owners, create jobs in a slow economy and contribute to a worldwide growing culture of quick, diverse and festive street food that can bring visitors and attract attention to Raleigh.
And it doesn’t have to be a case of either or, Lubecky added, noting that though he occasionally craves greasy pizza from a food truck, he will continue to dine at established restaurants.
Steve Valentino, who serves Italian fare at Valentino’s Food Truck, pledged to restaurant owners that he would not park in front of their businesses; rather, he urged a creative compromise, perhaps providing a discount to customers who purchased food from the restaurant earlier that day.
“If you could see the amount of money I made for a lunch or a dinner, you would laugh,” he told restaurateurs.
“That money goes back into some more supplies, gas that keeps going up. If the truck breaks I’m out of business. If it rains I don’t make any money, and with the rest of money that I have, I take my beautiful wife out to dinner at your restaurant. … We can work together on this.”
Two dozen folks either spoke or attended to support the food trucks compared to one dozen who sided with the restaurants.
The debate now moves to the Planning Commission, which has 30-45 days to make a recommendation to the City Council. Mayor Charles Meeker urged the two sides to work together to find a compromise.
Stenke lamented that it has taken six months to get to this point and that he’ll have to wait longer to partner with coffee shops and breweries that wanted him to park his truck in front of their businesses and attract customers. Still, he said he hopes to work with his opponents to make sure they create a “fair and reasonable” solution.
“As long as there are rules in place and those rules are enforceable, I think it’s going to be a great thing for the city,” he said.