The Greensboro City Council voted to allow food trucks to operate downtown at its Wednesday, Nov. 7 meeting in the council chambers at city hall.
The food truck pilot program, which has Commerce Place blocked off for selected trucks to operate during lunch on week days as well as dinner on Fridays, has been received positively by many, whose comments were submitted to the council.
The city has also provided free advertising for the food trucks on the city website and often has a city employee on site to facilitate the program.
Wednesday night saw some of the first major pushback from downtown restauranteurs regarding both the pilot program and the ordinance change, which they said threatened their businesses.
President of Downtown Greensboro Inc. Ed Wolverton presented a public survey about food trucks and the effect of the pilot program, which, according to Councilmember Nancy Vaughan, the council had only received hours before the meeting.
According to the survey, while only 17 percent of all respondents felt the food trucks would hurt existing downtown restaurants, 62 percent of downtown restaurateurs thought they would hurt business.
Wolverton acknowledged that factors like the economy and events like the election could affect sales, but said, "The big environmental change, when we look at October 2012 was in fact food trucks being introduced as a pilot."
Restaurateurs were asked to compare their sales in October 2011 to those in October 2012 to assess the impact of the pilot program. A decrease in sales by more than 10 percent was reported by 57 percent of the restaurants. None of the 23 restaurants surveyed reported an increase in sales.
Sixteen speakers representing downtown businesses spoke against allowing food trucks to operate downtown.
Chris Lester, one of the owners of Natty Greene's Brewing Company, said he and some other restaurant owners hadn't realized that the ordinance would be voted on so soon, and had met Monday, Nov. 6 to discuss the issue.
"All of us said the same thing: Wow, our business is really down," Lester said. He said his own lunches had been down by 25 percent in October 2012 compared to October 2011, and that the food trucks were the primary change.
John Lomax of Lomax Properties also spoke in opposition, saying that restaurants provided more jobs and long-term economic growth than the food trucks threatening their businesses.
"It's not just about bricks and mortar; it's people's money, investment and there are a lot of jobs in those restaurants," Lomax said.
Calvin Williams, general manager of Tavo Restaurant and Tavern, said his sales had decreased because his customers were choosing food trucks over him. "I can say that I did venture out a few times down to where the food trucks were, and I did see a few of my regulars there," Williams said.
There were also six speakers in favor of the food trucks, including the owners of the Baguettaboutit food truck, who argued that the trucks would add variety and vibrancy to downtown and could do so without hurting business for restaurants.
Greg Munning, owner of Taqueria El Azteca Taco Truck, said that food trucks were not a threat to restaurants, because restaurants offered a different experience, including air conditioning and a roof, for which food trucks were not a substitute. He ended his comments by asking the council to consider the free market.
Councilmember Zack Matheny said he had opposed the pilot program from the beginning, because he didn't think the city should be involved in the food truck business.
"I don't think we should have put the food trucks right in the heart of one of the best spots you can get downtown," Matheny said.
Matheny went on to say that he didn't think an outright ban on food trucks downtown made sense either.
"I think you've got to figure out a way to open us up so that we can be vibrant, and private property and working in that nature would be appropriate," he said, adding that the transition should be done carefully because "growing pains" could be involved.
Matheny also said he thought the fact that the food trucks wouldn't pay the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) tax like downtown restaurants was worth looking into. Property owners downtown pay an additional 9 cents of property tax rate to fund Downtown Greensboro Inc.
Matheny said the opposing sides should be given more opportunity to come to an agreement. "I just don't think that it would be appropriate for us to make a decision on this right now, based on what we've heard from these business owners," he said.
Councilmember Yvonne Johnson also expressed concern for the restaurant owners. "I'm not against food trucks at all but we have got to find a way to protect the businesses that are downtown and have given to this city and given to our downtown, some for many years," she said.
Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann expressed skepticism that the food trucks, which served about 2,500 meals in October, could account for the drop in restaurant sales.
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter said she had been under the impression that the food trucks were not controversial because she had not heard complaints from restaurant owners, but she realized, citing her experience with her own restaurant, that they may have been too busy to weigh in on the issue.
Abuzuaiter also said she wasn't sure the vendors were paying sales tax either, from what she could tell when eating at the trucks.
Vaughan said that the question was why food trucks were banned from the business district and not other places in the city, where they are already permitted to operate on private property.
Vaughan also criticized the opposition for voicing their concerns at the last minute. "I think it's unfortunate that you really didn't organize until the day before yesterday," she said, adding, "I don't know how people couldn't know when there's Facebook and television and newspaper."
That comment was followed by a commotion from the opposition speakers, who had remained lined up against the back wall of the chamber after speaking.
After Mayor Robbie Perkins called them back to order Vaughan said, "I do think it's patently unfair that we're protecting one part of the city and not the rest of the city." She continued that either the entire city should be closed to food trucks or open to them, and that she thinks it should be open.
In response to concerns about reduced restaurant sales in October, Vaughan called the two month pilot program an "artificial case" because the concentration of four food trucks on public property didn't reflect the long term change, which will only allow food trucks to operate on private property.
Vaughan said there weren't many places for food trucks to go under those conditions, because there wasn't a lot of private parking downtown.
Perkins said he though food trucks would bring business and vibrancy to Greensboro like they had in cities like Austin and Chapel Hill, but he acknowledged that the pilot program was a mistake.
"If I had to do this pilot program over again I wouldn't block a public street and put three or four of them in that location," he said. He also said that private lots are few and far between downtown.
A motion to table the ordinance for further discussion failed 4 to 4 with Councilmembers Jim Kee, Matheny, Abuzuaiter and Johnson voting in support. Mayor Perkins and Councilmembers Dianne Bellamy-Small, Vaughan and Hoffmann voted against the motion. Councilmember Trudy Wade was absent.
Vaughan made a motion to adopt the ordinance changes and review the situation in six months.
Part way through the voting some of the opposition began to leave, several complaining loudly about the council's decision and the food trucks.
The council also considered giving away a right-of-way on Eugene Street to allow for a parking lot for Dos Papayas Mexican restaurant. The City Council gave the restaurant a $200,000 loan in February with the stated goal of benefitting low- and moderate-income persons in downtown through employment.
Abuzuaiter asked about the value of the land, to which Greensboro Director of Engineering and Inspections Butch Simmons responded that there was no use for the land other than letting the restaurant use it.
Abuzuaiter pointed out that the lot being paved for patrons of the restaurant was a pay lot, and asked who would be getting the revenue. Simmons responded that the revenue would go to the restaurant.
Abuzuaiter expressed concern that the city should look more carefully into the issue before setting the precedent of giving away city rights-of-way.