DURHAM — The friendliest city to food trucks in North Carolina may kick food trucks off its streets, or at least streets where there are restaurants nearby.
For the last several years, Durham has fostered one of the most popular “street food” scenes in the country. The roughly 40 food trucks that roam Durham’s commercial areas and neighborhoods have appeared on reality TV shows and contributed to the city’s reputation as a national food destination.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the food trucks’ success, city planners have proposed banning trucks within 100 feet of restaurants, and 300 feet of special events including Durham’s weekly farmers’ market, which has become a hot spot for food trucks. Taking up more than one parking space also could become illegal, even if trucks paid for both spaces.
Food truck fans packed into city hall July 9 for a public hearing on the matter. Dozens of people spoke passionately in support of food trucks, and no one offered comments against them.
Nick Johnson of The Cookery — a commissary where many of Durham’s food trucks prepare their food — said creating buffer zones around restaurants would blur the line between public and private property.
“If [the trucks are parking on] public right of way, it’s as much mine as it is yours or anyone else’s,” Johnson said. “The rights of the restaurant owner don’t extend to the public area outside of that restaurant. There’s nothing that says another restaurant can’t open next door, and there shouldn’t be.”
Judy Lessler, the president of Durham’s Farmers’ Market, said food trucks attract more customers to the market.
Lindsay Moriarty of Monuts Donuts food truck said she wouldn’t have been able to start her business had the proposed regulations been in place at the time. Nor does she know if she’ll be able to keep it going if the regulations are passed.
Several food truck patrons spoke about how the restrictions on food trucks would eliminate their options as consumers.
“I would like to have the choice as a citizen to determine who is where by spending my dollars, and I think some of these restrictions eliminate my ability to choose,” said downtown resident Matt Davis.
Scott Harmon, another downtown resident, called the proposed rules protectionism, “the number one enemy of innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Michael Stenke of Klausie’s Pizza said he got his food truck business started in Durham while he’s spent the past two years working to get Raleigh’s laws on mobile food vending liberalized.
“Finally, the law has changed,” Stenke said. “Mind-sets have changed, to a large degree because they saw the value of food trucks in Durham.”
While Raleigh’s laws remain more stringent then Durham’s — food trucks can park only on private property, not public streets — Stenke said city council now is considering loosening them further.
“Did all of the people who’ve moved their trucks and families to Durham make the wrong bet?” Stenke asked.
Planning Supervisor Grace Smith admitted that the buffer zones were proposed as a result of complaints from restaurant owners and some farmers’ market vendors. She said they were modeled after those in cities like Chapel Hill and Raleigh.
Mayor Bill Bell and Councilman J. Michael Woodard spoke after the public comment period.
“My thought is that we ought to back up for a couple of months here and keep the conversation going,” Woodard said. “I couldn’t be more happy to hear about the meeting this afternoon between the farmers’ market vendors and the food truck vendors. That’s a conversation that should’ve happened some time ago and if it took us with a proposed bit of overregulation to get that conversation going, then I’m glad we did that.”
“Ultimately, city council will make the final decision on this issue,” Bell said. “Restaurants and food trucks are a very important part of the economic engine of our community. I’m convinced we’ve got to find ways that both of them can coexist and I’m sure we will.”
Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.