When Fuquay-Varina imposed limits on food trucks earlier this month, it did so to ease the fears of restaurant and property owners, who felt the town’s new approach to food trucks was costing them business.
But some food truck operators, as well as businesses that rely on their services, say the town’s revised rules unfairly favor restaurants and developers, some of whom have publicly opposed the June 2015 decision to allow food trucks in the town’s commercial districts.
On March 7, the board of commissioners unanimously approved updated rules, effective immediately, that restrict food trucks to operating two days per week in town. They also limit businesses who want to host the trucks to two days a week.
“I’m supposed to be in Fuquay four days next week,” said Tony Hudson, owner of Flattz Signature Flatbreads food truck, shortly after the ordinance was passed. “I’m not going to be able to make money next week? I won’t be able to support my family?”
Hudson said he lives six miles from Fuquay-Varina and estimates his weekly revenue there at between $1,800 and $2,000.
Scott Palmieri’s Draft Line Brewing Company has relied on food trucks to attract patrons who want to make a full meal out of their visit to the brewery.
“You’re basically giving the balance of competition to brick-and-mortar and taking it away from food trucks,” Palmieri said. “It begs a lot of questions about free trade and certain legalities.”
The situation in Fuquay-Varina is similar to what other Triangle towns have encountered as food trucks become more and more popular, and leaders try to balance the needs of both food truck owners and restaurant owners alike.
Raleigh recently adopted a six-month pilot program that will allow trucks to operate in four downtown areas during certain hours. A permitting process was created that involves property owners, and time blocks were created to allow the mobile food vendors.
But in Fuquay-Varina, Palmieri and other food truck supporters said they are concerned with the new restrictions and the process by which they were implemented. They said they hadn’t had an opportunity to comment on the revised rules.
Town Manager Adam Mitchell said he had instructed businesses that work with food trucks to keep operators in the loop.
“Perhaps direct phone calls were made to some food truck vendors,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know that to be the case, but I do know we had a series of public hearings where they could have come and voiced their opinions, and that’s the forum they should have done that in.”
Mitchell said the town is happy with the ordinance and doesn’t anticipate revisiting it in the near future.
Still, some food truck operators have continued to express their concerns and said they’ll question bringing bring their trucks to the town in the future.
Fuquay-Varina didn’t allow food trucks until last June when it decided to issue permits and open the entire town to them, with the exception of residentially zoned areas.
Mitchell said Fuquay-Varina’s food truck rules always were meant to be revisited. When the town checked in with restaurateurs and property owners six months later, it found a discontented group.
Town staff responded by proposing to the planning board in January that the town confine food trucks to industrially zoned areas and ban them from downtown commercial areas. The planning board rejected that proposal. Mitchell notes this recommendation wouldn’t have excluded properties like Draft Line’s.
“That was probably too strong an approach, looking at it in hindsight,” Mitchell said. “But we had zero days a week nine months ago, so even at two days a week, I would argue we are way more flexible and supportive of the food truck industry than other municipalities.”
Town staff presented a revised recommendation in February requiring that food trucks be hosted by a brick-and-mortar business or nonprofit groups. The planning board approved that concept, but not language limiting days of operation. However, the town board passed the limits on number of days later.
That appears to have confused some food truck supporters, including Hudson, who heard that the planning board had rejected the twice-weekly limit and assumed it was gone for good.
“The people who opposed it were told the restrictions were stricken from the ordinance,” Hudson said. “But then (the board of commissioners) turns around and passes those same restrictions.”
Mitchell said the planning board’s opposition to the two-day limit was a result of miscommunication. Because those in the stakeholder meetings were mostly satisfied with the resulting twice-weekly compromise, Mitchell said, they didn’t show up to the planning board meeting.
“The planning board inferred from this, well, maybe (food trucks) aren’t as big a problem as was once thought, so they suggested more days a week,” he said.
Mitchell and others at the town board’s March 7 meeting justified the new restrictions in terms of protecting restaurant- and property-owners, who pay local taxes, from direct competition from food truck-owners, who do not.
But Hudson said brick-and-mortar restaurants might struggle for a number of reason, not just because of the arrival of food trucks. The food truck business model is one that suits some business owners better.
“I thought about opening a restaurant, but I didn’t like the overhead,” he said. “It’s almost like people want to punish us because we made a better business decision than they did.”
Mark Doble, who owns Aviator Brewing Company – which uses food trucks – and a downtown restaurant, said “the ordinance they came up with was perfect.”
A manager with Anna’s Pizzeria, which has locations in Fuquay-Varina and Apex, confirmed earlier this year that the restaurant had complained to the town about the trucks. Yury Rojas, the owner, declined to comment about the recent changes to the rules.
But two weeks after the revised ordinance passed, Hudson said not much seemed to have changed in terms of enforcing the rules.
“We don’t see anyone keeping track,” he said. “And I don’t see how they can, unless you’re constantly driving around to see what food truck is at a business and how often.”
Zack Firestein, owner of the Zeke’s Meats food truck, doesn’t go to Fuquay-Varina as often as Hudson – maybe one or two days a week – but said the restrictions angered him.
“I will tell you there are mumblings of (food trucks) boycotting the balloon festival,” he said, referring to the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest scheduled in the town for Memorial Day Weekend.
Firestein added that he feels less inclined to spend time in Fuquay-Varina generally, despite its convenience.
“I’m based out of a commissary on 401 by Hilltop, so I’ve always been going to Fuquay,” he said. “Now I see how the town operates, I’d rather go to Carrboro, which has the same feel but has better options.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan