An inviting downtown ought to smell like good food. The more, the better.
So Greensboro’s decision last year to keep motorized mobile food vendors out of downtown could only make the central business district a little less appetizing.
Food trucks are popular in many larger cities, where they add to the local color and give consumers more dining options. But their sales take a little bit from the revenues of established, fixed-location restaurants that obviously carry much higher operating costs. So, there’s a conflict.
Some cities try to ease the impact on restaurants with rules that keep food trucks a certain distance away, or limit their hours of operation, or prohibit them from setting up in a same place every day.
Some restrictions are reasonable, but barring food trucks is not. They can claim a legitimate place in a downtown city scene.
Greensboro’s prohibitive ordinance amounts to protectionism. It blocks one kind of business from competing with another. City ordinances should serve the best interests of the public, not favor some businesses over others. Consumers benefit from more competition, not less.
It’s not clear how much of a threat food trucks would present. People looking for a quick bite aren’t likely to opt for the dine-in experience. People meeting for a business lunch aren’t going to grab a taco from a food truck and sit on a park bench to eat. If it’s pouring rain or 99 degrees, a dry, air-conditioned, sit-down restaurant — even if it’s just a sandwich shop — will look more inviting than a food truck on the street.
For a downtown worker who wants a quick, inexpensive meal, however, a food truck might present an alternative to driving away from downtown for a fast-food meal. For the late-night bar crowd, it might offer just the right fare between drinks.
Greensboro requires a detailed permit process before granting a license to operate a food truck outside the downtown area. The applicant has to gain the approval of the county health department and maintain insurance coverage. An operator can’t sell alcoholic beverages and must pick up trash around the truck. Many other rules must be followed. All those requirements, and more, could make sure that food trucks don’t become a detriment to the downtown atmosphere.
More likely, they’d become an asset. While there wouldn’t be room for many, just a half-dozen or so could add to the ethnic variety of foods available, give consumers more choices, create opportunities for entrepreneurs to start new businesses, and contribute to the flavor of a thriving downtown.
The city should drop the ban on food trucks downtown and write reasonable rules for licensing and operation.
There’s always room for competition in a busy business community. The aromas of good food may draw more hungry people to downtown Greensboro.
In a recent article in the News & Record (Aug. 4), one proponent of food trucks attempted to put a positive spin on the idea by suggesting that food trucks add culture and diversity and are “incubators for entrepreneurship.”
Other boosters of the idea even tried to compare Greensboro to Seattle and Los Angeles, cities of vastly greater populations and tourism levels.
The truth is that downtown Greensboro lacks enough workforce, residents and tourists to successfully support both food trucks and restaurants. We don’t have 60,000 fans pouring from a Panthers game eight games a season or 40,000 supporters from a Red Sox game 81 times a year.
It’s an unfortunate fact that restaurants survive off low profit margins and high volume, and food trucks in downtown will only decrease that volume for existing restaurants.
My place of business, Stumble Stilskins, alone employs 20 people who survive on tips and long hours. Can a food truck do that?
They will only threaten jobs and downtown businesses that employ residents and pay local taxes.
As for our culture and diversity? There are dozens of creative options and ethnic choices in our restaurants, citywide and downtown, that are locally owned and operated. So how does a taco from a fast-food truck add culture and excitement?
And how exactly are food trucks an “incubator for entrepreneurship”? Maybe we should start with filling the empty storefronts of Elm Street instead of allowing mobile pizza shops to take up our loading zones and leave their trash behind.
Most important to me are the members of my staff, whom I consider part of my family. For them this is either their full-time job, future career or even how they pay for college. They work extremely hard to make ends meet as well as create the unique atmosphere that is the heart of our city.
This subpar idea of food trucks threatens the success that we have worked so hard to create in downtown Greensboro. Food trucks play a large role in tourism areas like Boston Commons and New York’s Central Park that have the numbers to support them.
We don’t in the downtown that I’ve worked so hard to be a part of for 15 years.
Chris Flathers is co-owner of Stumble Stilskins, a sports bar and restaurant at 202 W. Market St. in downtown Greensboro.