The Case for Food Trucks

In January of 2012, after more than a year of debate, discussion, and deliberation about food trucks in Chapel Hill, the Town Council finally passed an ordinance to allow them in our community.

But then no food trucks came.

I’ve spent the last two months talking to food truck owners, local businesses, advocates, and town staff about our ordinance. While there is still disagreement, it seems clear that there is one thing we can all agree on: Our food truck ordinance is not working. I think this is because we didn’t understand the regional economy of the food truck industry in the Triangle. In Durham, food trucks thrive because the community has embraced the food truck business model, and empty parking lots in downtown become natural gathering places for this model of food delivery.  

Chapel Hill feared that opening the door to food trucks would provide too much competition to brick and mortar restaurants. We were also concerned that the number of food truck applicants would overwhelm our staff’s ability to review and inspect them. No matter how we write our ordinance, I don’t believe either of those things will happen.

Much of the debate over food trucks has focused on downtown, yet the business opportunity for food truck owners downtown is limited. Food trucks go where there is no food. America’s Foodiest Small Town doesn’t have room (physically or in the market) for food trucks downtown during lunch or dinner. Instead, food trucks can benefit our community by filling in gaps in open space on the outer limits of our community and bringing much needed customer traffic.

I petitioned Council on Monday to move up the review of our ordinance. I’m glad we are not waiting six months to discuss something that almost everyone uniformly agrees has been unsuccessful. I’ve talked to multiple food truck owners over the course of the last two months, and the universal criticism I’ve heard is that the “when business is booming in Durham and RTP, why should I pay a significantly higher fee to come to Chapel Hill?” In this difficult economy, it is important that we support entrepreneurs and folks just starting out in their careers.  We should support residents who are taking financial risks in this difficult time. The owner of the Chirba Chirba Dumpling Truck lives in our town, yet finds our ordinance too restrictive to operate in Chapel Hill. Wouldn't it be great to one day have a Chirba Chriba restaurant on Franklin Street? 

Since Raleigh welcomed food trucks in September 2011, they have not been deluged with permit requests. We should explore making our fee structure in line with Raleigh’s on a trial basis. One of the major reasons for Chapel Hill’s higher fee structure was concern about the cost of staff time for inspections. This is not necessarily a concern for safety and health (that responsibility lies with Orange County), but concern that owners might not be complying with specific restrictions related to how and where food trucks can operate. The reality is that Chapel Hill is not likely to face an influx of food trucks anytime soon, and inspections are not likely to overwhelm our staff. According to Becky Cascio, owner of Pie Pushers food truck, “the trucks that will hypothetically seriously consider paying the fees and eventually entering Chapel Hill are going to be those trucks that follow those rules to a "T". Raleigh has only had one enforcement issue, which was quickly resolved. Much can be accomplished by pro-actively educating food truck owners about our ordinance when they apply for a permit to operate in Chapel Hill. 

Of course, it is a real concern in our community that food trucks could jeopardize certain businesses that we’ve come to love. While they don’t threaten all restaurants, they do pose a potential threat to fast and convenient restaurants found on East Franklin. Since food trucks are unlikely to thrive in downtown due to space limitations, and it would be reasonable to ban food trucks from operating in Town Center 1 Zoning District. 

Food trucks support entrepreneurs, provide excitement and energy to our community, help define urban spaces, and have brought national attention to the Triangle. As leaders in our community, we are thrilled when new businesses open in empty storefronts, so why shouldn’t we be as excited when an empty parking lot becomes a gathering space where residents break bread together? When we re-evaluate this ordinance in the fall, I hope we can find a way to truly bring food trucks to Chapel Hill.





It seems to me that prime food truck real estate would be South Rd, Parking lots of South campus dorms, etc. What are the regulations there? 

The Town Manager has made clear that the town's current rules on food trucks don't apply on campus. Given the lack of *unassigned* parking on the main campus, not sure how they would get space without very careful negotiation with Public Safety, but there are other campus tracts with more available parking at times. And employees at those locations are interested in food trucks. Just to remind folks, the vote for the ordinance was 9-0, including Lee. And those of us who have been talking about ways to revise it (Lee and I, others as well) know that, but we're willing to see if there are other approaches. There are definitely some promising locations away from downtown. We changed the towing ordinance in May to apply different standards away from the Town Center zones (downtown district), and we can do the same for the food truck ordinance. Chapel Hill will never have as many places for them to park as does the City of Durham, with its abandoned strip malls and redeveloping industrial streetscapes. And keep in mind that UNC-CH owns not a single building in the Carrboro town limits, accounting for the relative lack of daytime parking pressure compared to downtown CH. Where every parking space is already under intense pressure, don't expect to see food trucks. Ed Harrison

I think Ed's statement "Where every parking space is already under intense pressure, don't expect to see food trucks," is generally true, but my sense is that the controlling variable in Chapel Hill is still the ordinance.Will and Pop's set up at the Dead Mule prior to the ordinance being implemented; if that had been allowed to continue I think you would have seen other spots emerge. Sandwhich closes at 9 most nights, for example, and like Johnny's allows/rents their space after they close to a taco truck, I could see the same happening in Sandwhich's 2-3 dedicated parking spaces. Theoretically, if finding parking was the only issue, a truck could pay for two parking spaces along a curb somewhere and  recoup 3-4 hours of curb space rental after filling three orders. I wonder if other cities do this, or if it makes sense here.Especially when it comes to late night food, one of the things that Chapel Hill should ponder here are the incentives given to drivers after 8 pm.  If you drive to West Franklin and can find a space around suppertime, and pay for it until 8:00 pm, then technically it's yours until 6 a.m.  This means that later diners seeking a meal between 8:30 - 10:30 pm face much more limited parking than those earlier in the evening, whose space rentals are subject to mild turnover pressure at various priced lots. The valet parking system on West Franklin is a response to this condition. I wonder what would happen if parking in various public lots were priced all the way to 10 or 11 pm- would turnover in public lots be higher, providing more space for later-arriving patrons?  Would this deter illegal parking at nearby private lots?  Would lower levels of illegal parking provide an opportunity for food truck locations off-street in private lots, if the council desired food trucks in downtown?

in Carrboro, to me anyway. I recently bought a scooter. Fun to ride, great gas mileage, and easy to park.  I agree with whoever said that the limiting factor is more likely the ordinance than the parking. Nonetheless, glad to hear there is additional council interest in making it easier for food trucks to do business in Chapel Hill. Good luck!

Not much fast food around University Mall and lots of parking lot space. Lee, you are a voice of reasoned pragmatism. Good luck with this. Maybe you can save us from the cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face-unintended-consequence syndrome.  

I can't figure out how our "brick and mortar" restaurants would be any more threatened than those in Durham or Raleigh.  A sit down restaurant is a totally different experience than a food truck-don't you think?  The Chamber should welcome the food trucks, which will only add to the CH appeal, instead of making it harder for small businesses.  Who knows-one of them may even end up renting an empty store front! Del Snow

If CH and the Chamber are truely interested in taking steps to get there "Mojo" back from Durham and Carrboro then they will change these rules. 

Durham is currently reviewing its ordinance. One of the questions they are considering is whether it is the town's responsibility to manage competition between local businesses. But there's also a question on the table about whether a bricks and mortar establishment should have the right to prevent a mobile unit from using a parking area within a certain distance from their establishment. The town has a small group of citizens reviewing the issues and proposing changes before the public hearing on Monday, July 9.The big difference between the Durham and Chapel Hill approach is that in Durham the bricks and mortar establishments and the food truck owners and the residents will have active involvement in crafting the ordinance. In Chapel Hill, restaurant owners and the Chamber seemed to have the ear of town staff when the CH ordinance was being written. It was never clear to me that any of the groups involved in writing the ordinance had ever sat down and made any effort to really understand the business model or the marketing approach of food trucks.There is a FaceBook page called Be A Friend to Food Trucks for anyone who wants to follow the Durham discussion. I especially like one of the very recent comments: "This is not a restaurant vs. food truck issue or a City vs. food truck issue. This is not a "vs". issue at all. This is an economic development issue about the best way to continue to make Durham more vibrant, active, lively and livable." 

As a current resident of Chapel Hill, I am sad that CH has made it so hard to enjoy this culinary explosion.  As noted above, it might be best to talk to some of the food truck owners and to someone in Durham who is involved in creating/regulating the ordinances to see what has worked and what hasn't so far.  There is no perfect way to create the ordinances around food trucks but it's worth trying.  And Chapel Hill is not so special that it can't figure out how to accommodate the food trucks.   Chapel Hill is REALLY missing out on lots of fun and excitement in the food world...At Durham Central Park's last Food Truck Rodeo there were 25 trucks and almost 3000 folks who came to enjoy the food.  It was BIG fun for the community.  How about the NC Botanical Gardens as a gathering spot for Chapel Hill?  Food trucks could gather in their parking lot!


Councilmember Jim Ward asked the Town Manager some months back  if food trucks could come to the Botanical Garden. (Other staff had expressed interest on the BG Facebook page). The response was that the ordinance does not cover UNC property. I've already noted this to a faculty member who complained about the lack of food trucks on campus. Any food trucks operators will have to work with the UNC Department of Public Safety for access to park on university property. Food trucks are allowed to visit parts of the Duke campus periodically, I believe on a schedule, with permission from the university. My memory is that a food truck that just showed up in front of Duke North received public safety enforcement. Depending on event schedules, food trucks would have parking available at the Bot Garden on many weekdays.  According to a close friend of mine on Durham City Council, the ordinance changes proposed for that ordinance were caused by intense complaints about enforcement. The bulk of the fee in the Chapel Hill ordinance was placed there in order to pay for enforcement. That's on the public record. Ed Harrison

History Hub Plans Open House

DURHAM -- Music, pizza and free local brew are on tap for the Durham History Hub'sfirst Open House ....Pie Pushers will be in the driveway with pizza available ...

The History Hub is the first home of the Museum of Durham History ...  The Hub is envisioned as the starting point for exploring the many aspects of Durham's compelling past.

Chapel Hill is the "Edge" of what?

...but also UNC Campus Dining/Aramark Services. They control who eats what at UNC.

It's not as simple as finding a place to park.

That being said,there are food trucks at the construction sites. The sites themselves - at least for the duration of the project - are considered property of the general contractors and not subject to other rules governing food on UNC property.

One's a (sub)contract, one's a loophole. Any more capital projects at the Bot Gardens? Maybe we can talk it out over a taco...

I'm sure a number of folks posting here would be willing to "talk it out over a taco" but that's hard to do with an anonymous person. Thanks for the insights.  Ed Harrison

There was a food truck rodeo on campus at least once last semester, I believe in the law school parking lot. I think it was for a charitable cause, though I'm not sure of the details.

I eaten at two food trucks in Chapel Hill, ones that are there regularly, and there's hardly anyone buying.  If there was such a big demand for more food trucks, wouldn't the existing food trucks have more customers?

Another example of CH residents losing their "Mojo", God help you poor folks.

Judging by the many Chapel Hillians I see at food trucks in Carrboro, Saxapahaw, and Durham, I think there is plenty of demand. 

I agree with Ruby that the demand will follow the supply. My friends in Durham know the trucks' schedules and are regular customers. There are so few around here that it hasn't become part of the rhythm. If you want to see a crowded food truck, though, come to Southern Village on Thursdays. I think folks go from the farmers' market straight to the crepe truck.

I walk past the SV crepe truck at dinner time nearly every Thursday since its 1.5 blocks from my house, and most often there's no one in line.  Occasionally I'll see someone buy, but its hardly the kind of interest that says people want more food trucks. The same thing goes for the food trucks in Saxapahaw on Saturday-- the Pub and the gas station have lines out the door and the food trucks are nearly empty. From what I can tell, some people want to see more food trucks, but there's not enough demand to support more food trucks than Chapel Hill already has.   

perhaps potential vendors could judge the demand rather than relying on anecdotal evidence

Why would a mobile food eatery keep showing up at a certain place if
there was no demand? I'm guessing your truck-viewing habits are
consistent with a time period when the truck needs to be parked
somewhere to secure the space but that sales activity is higher at other
times.For example, the Fitch Taco Truck is there 6 pm - 12 am four nights/week. I rarely see it as busy at 6:30 - 7:00 as I do at 10:00-11:00 pm.


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