Susan Tower would sit outside of random food trucks and count how many customers they got in one hour.
She did this for days. Sitting. Counting. Learning.
Her research of the food truck industry in the Triangle spanned over a year. She counted customers to see what she could expect, she asked other food truck owners questions about their business models. She had a dream of opening her own food truck and nothing was going to stop her.
That’s why in 2012, she left her day job as an event coordinator at LivingSocial to start the Deli-icious truck, a Raleigh-based mobile food unit that offers everything from paninis and quesadillas to crab cakes and vegetarian chili.
Tower says new truck owners – including herself – always think starting and operating a truck is going to be easy. They see the long lines at food truck rodeos in places like Raleigh and Durham and think the odds must be in their favor.
“When I first started, I sort of thought it was going to be easy,” Tower said.
What most forget about are the city regulations, the permit fees and the days when rodeos aren’t happening.
Here’s a breakdown of how Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill compare on the food truck scene.
For food truck operators, working in Raleigh just got a little easier.
The city council voted unanimously Sept. 1 to allow food trucks to operate in mixed-use development, called NX zones, letting trucks operate in several neighborhoods near downtown and in Brier Creek, Five Points and Mordecai. The council also voted to start a pilot program to test the idea of letting trucks park on streets, something prohibited to food truck drivers in Raleigh.
“The city prides itself on its entrepreneurial spirit and food trucks are just one manifestation of that,” said Damien Graham, communications director for the City of Raleigh.
Tower sees food trucks going to more neighborhood block parties and to more school charity events because of the looser restrictions.
“Just having one truck a week (in one of these mixed-use zones) for a whole year, it would average $26,000 a week for the truck owner,” she said.
To host an event with a food truck in Raleigh requires two permits. The property manager has to obtain one to allow food trucks on his or her property. That one costs $82, subject to change if there is a fee increase at the next budget year.
The second one is the food truck permit that each truck owner must renew annually when it expires each June 30. That permit is $150 for the year. Public records show 53 vendors received permits in 2014 compared to 16 in 2011, the first year Raleigh allowed food trucks.
“By not allowing food trucks to get permits or event planners for certain zones, it definitely limited what kind of business we could do,” Tower said.
While permit prices and tighter regulations hinder some truck operations, Tower says it’s hard to avoid doing business in Raleigh.
“Because the Triangle is this East Coast Silicon Valley where you have all of these tech companies, you have these companies that want to provide a good opportunity for their employees,” she said.
“So Monday through Friday, we go between Raleigh and Durham because (the Research Triangle Park) expands into both of those counties.”
The City of Durham no longer requires food truck operators to obtain permits.
Instead, truck owners need to register each year and pay a $10 fee for each vehicle that’s registered, according to Steven Medlin, planning director for the Durham City-County Planning Department.
Within the city, Tower says, she can park on a public street, as long as she isn’t blocking any spots for people with disabilities or fire hydrants. Parking and serving people at places like Main Street is a possibility for her.
And Tower isn’t alone.
In 2009, 19 vendors received permits, compared to 226 vendors in 2014, according to Durham’s finance department.
Tower says it’s just easier to start a food truck business in Durham than it is in Raleigh.
“They’re a little bit easier to work with when it comes to designing a food truck,” she said. “So you can save five to 10 grand by going to Durham instead of Raleigh.”
But compared to the ordinances in Chapel Hill, Raleigh seems like a breeze.
For the first year, food truck or cart owners pay $436 for a permit, and then pay $200 each year to renew them.
The town’s ordinance, adopted in 2012 and amended in 2013, requires food trucks to be semi-permanently located on private property and away from streets, highways, or the “public right-of-way.” Currently, Chapel Hill only has one permanent food truck at Pantana Bob’s on West Rosemary Street.
And just as in Raleigh, Chapel Hill has two-part application process: Property owners have to obtain one to allow food trucks on their property, and the trucks themselves have to have a permit to operate.
Mike Klein, the town’s zoning enforcement officer, said he couldn’t speak to the exact reasons that Chapel Hill decided on these regulations. However, he said, restaurants sometimes worried about competition, comparing it to the disputes between Uber drivers and taxi cab drivers.
“Typically when they are this strict, it’s because the restaurants have caused a fuss because of competition,” Klein said.
Samantha Sabin: 704-604-8828, @samsabin923