Food Truck Boom Or Bust? Depends On What You Serve

Aug 24, 2012

Food trucks gather in areas of Charlotte on weekends. Photo: Julie Rose It's become cool to eat from a truck in Charlotte. More than 30 mobile kitchens serving gourmet fare have sprung up here recently and they've been welcomed warmly by city and neighborhood leaders - unlike the chilly reception Charlotte's original food trucks faced. These new mobile chefs in Charlotte talk like battle-scarred road warriors with stories of setting up in empty lots, hoping people would come. David Trauner remembers a night last February. "There was four of us - decided to come and see if it was gonna work out." David Trauner serving a customer. Photo: Julie Rose Trauner sells ice cream and crepes from his truck called "Sticks and Cones." "I looked at my wife and it was probably 30 degrees and I said, 'What are we doing here?'" recalls Trauner. "One week after another we just waited it out and now tonight we'll probably have 600, 700 people here tonight easily." Food trucks painted in funky colors and powered by generators are a fixture in Charlotte's hip South End neighborhood on Friday nights. They're at special events Uptown and parked outside bars and office parks all over the region. The trend has gained impressive traction in just a matter of months. Truck owners like Trauner who've been at it longer than a year feel like pioneers. Except they've got nothing on Manuel Gaucin. For seven years he's grilled authentic Mexican tacos in his mobile taqueria here in Charlotte. Manuel Gaucin prepares food in truck he's operated in Charlotte for seven years. Photo: Julie Rose As recently as 2008, more than 70 taco trucks like Gaucin's operated along major thoroughfares such as Central Avenue, North Tryon and South Boulevard. Today, their numbers are down by at least half - largely because of strict new rules the city passed in 2008. To be clear, we're not talking about health codes. Those are consistent and strictly enforced. What changed was the ordinance about where trucks can do business. They have to be 400 feet from residential areas and from other food trucks. They can't stay in one location longer than 90 days. They need a $135 permit from the city for every spot they set up shop. And they have to close by 9 p.m. "They making it hard for us," says Gaucin. "This is our job. It's not fair." Permits The City of Charlotte Code Enforcement office currently has 82 zoning use permits on file for Mobile Food Vendors. Only 25 of those are active. The permits cost $135 and must be renewed every 30 days. A food truck is supposed to have one permit for each location it operates. Of those 25 active zoning permits, 13 are clearly identified as taqueria trucks. A database maintained by Charlotte Center City Partners contains 33 gourmet food trucks offering everything from ice cream to barbecue. Only five vendors on that list appear to have active zoning use permits with the City of Charlotte. Violations The City of Charlotte Code Enforcement Office tracks violations according to location, rather than vendor. Since January 2011, vendors at 16 locations have been cited for violating the mobile food vendor ordinance. Ten of those locations correspond to current or inactive permits obtained by traditional taco vendors. The other six locations are on portions of major Charlotte streets popular with taco trucks. Gaucin is convinced the mobile food vendor ordinance is culturally-biased. City council members and zoning officials insist it's not. But in the last 18 months - as new gourmet food trucks have come to nearly outnumber taqueria trucks in Charlotte - virtually all of the violations issued by code enforcement have gone to taco vendors. Here's how City Code Enforcement Manager Ben Krise explains the discrepancy: "We would inspect any location that comes to our attention or is brought to our attention. There is no delineation with regard to what type of truck that is." Apparently only taco trucks have elicited complaints to code enforcement in the last 18 months. Complaints from Eastside residents upset with the number of vendors congregating near their neighborhoods on Central Avenue were the trigger for those stricter rules in 2008. Since then, Krise says complaints about mobile food vendors have dropped significantly. As for the new gourmet trucks popping up all over town? "I have not had one complaint, that I'm aware of, in reference to that trend, whatsoever," says Krise. It may be that no one's complaining because they like the gourmet trucks better. But it turns out the new trucks have also stumbled on a strategy to stay off the radar of code enforcement. They're not doing it on purpose, necessarily, but it's worked out that way. These new trucks - including The HErban Legend, which is owned by chef Brian Seeley - maintain a rotating schedule. Every other Tuesday for lunch, Seeley's at an office park in Ballantyne. Tuesday night he parks The Herban Legend in front of NoDa Brewing. Wednesday he's at the Bank of America complex Uptown, and so on. Contrast Seeley's rotating schedule with the way Charlotte's original taco trucks operate. They tend to camp in one spot for months and build up a clientele, which also makes them more likely to wear out their welcome. The city's mobile food vendor ordinance is tailored to address that way of doing business and taqueria trucks have struggled to stay afloat within its confines. Meanwhile, these new trucks violate the ordinance routinely. When they arrange to feed the lunch crowd at an office park, for example, they're supposed to get a $135 city zoning permit for that location. Most don't, according to zoning records. And when they park for hours on a street in front of a big employer or popular bar, they're breaking a city law that limits peddlers to 30 minutes in one spot. Charlotte Center City Partners is responsible for policing food trucks Uptown and in South End. Chief Creative Officer Robert Krumbine was not aware such violations were happening under his nose. "If it is happening, that's not something that we are aware of, and I'm glad you're telling me because we will have to look into that," says Krumbine. But he doesn't want to chase the food trucks away, because they've become really popular. Quite the opposite, Center City Partners is negotiating with the city's zoning office to make it easier for mobile food vendors to be Uptown. Charlotte's original taco trucks certainly didn't get such a warm welcome from the city, but Krumbine says times have changed: Eating from a truck is now trendy.