Mt. Pleasant took a step toward regulating mobile food vendors on Monday, setting off a flinty debate between brick-and-mortar restaurateurs and a new crop of food truck owners. The Town Council Planning and Development Committee approved a rough draft of a one-year pilot program that would require mobile-food enterprises — including push carts, trailers, and food trucks — to apply to the city for special permits.
The pilot program would also require them to park only on property that has been zoned for retail or food service, and they would have to get written permission from property owners before setting up for sales. The proposal still has to go through the Planning Commission, back to the committee, and then to Town Council before it takes effect.
Council member Thomasena Stokes-Marshall opened the public-input session at the midday meeting by saying participants would be given "two long minutes" to make their point. The 11 speakers, most of whom were involved in the restaurant industry, took full advantage of the flexible time allotment, packing in a flurry of arguments for and against food trucks alongside the occasional personal jab at speakers on the other side of the aisle. Traditional restaurant owners argued that food trucks had an unfair competitive advantage and could bypass many of the usual barriers to entry in the business, while food truck owners largely said they meant no harm, dealt with unique costs of their own, and sought a more on-the-go demographic than traditional restaurants could serve.
Anyone following the ongoing debate could have predicted that things would get snarky. For one thing, there were blood ties involved: Council member Linda Page's family owns Page's Okra Grill, a Southern-style eatery that opened on Coleman Boulevard in June. Tony Page, the councilwoman's brother and co-owner of the restaurant, was first in line to speak out against food trucks at the meeting.
Tony Page rose to the podium well-prepared with a laundry list of questions about food trucks: How will DHEC keep up with the increased demand for inspections? If a food truck backs over a pedestrian in a restaurant parking lot, which business owner will be held responsible? What happens when "unattractive" trucks like the ones he has seen on Rivers Avenue make their way to Mt. Pleasant? And what about the risk of "food truck blight," a phenomenon he described in Austin, Texas, where trucks have had their wheels removed and remain stationary? "I'm sure we wouldn't allow that to happen in pristine Mt. Pleasant," he said.
Councilwoman Page added to that list of concerns: "I have issues with plastic or paper portable signs," she said. "I just don't think they're attractive." She also said the noise from electric generators attached to trucks would create a nuisance near public parks. In the end, she abstained from voting on the proposal, while the other three council members voted in favor of it.
Jeff Johnson, owner of the ZAHH Pizza truck, fired back at Tony Page when his turn came: "I believe Mr. Page has an unfair advantage in that he has tables, he has seats, he has air conditioning," he said, rhetorically asking Page to remove those amenities "to even the playing field." Johnson, who is also an architect by trade, started operating his truck 10 weeks ago.
"We're barely eking by. We're just a new phenomenon that has occurred," Johnson said. "The person who's going to stop at my food truck is in and out quick, not sitting down."
Willie McRae, owner of Boone Hall Plantation, said the Boone Hall Farms Market Cafe lost business when the Cajun Creole food truck pulled over and set up shop in front of his property. "Of course my building's not as visible as that food truck big as a Greyhound bus right next to Highway 17," he said.
Jeff Filosa, owner of the Carolina Creole truck, took the podium next and immediately apologized to McRae for his choice of location, saying he hadn't parked there in two and a half months now. "When we first start off on this, we don't know what we're doing," he said. Filosa, who formerly owned Portside Cafe in downtown Charleston, said he sympathized with restaurant owners but also understood the fierce nature of competition in the Charleston-area food and beverage industry. After the meeting, he compared the recent increase in the number of food trucks to the proliferation of catering businesses in the 1990s.
Mark Elisei, whose restaurant Tasi Bites & Blends serves as home base for the mobile Tasi Truck, spoke in favor of a laissez-faire food-truck policy. "The beauty of living in America is having an idea and being able to run with it," Elisei said. "One way to do it in a free market is to let it run and see how it plays out ... If it's worth it, people will do it, and if it's not worth it, it will disappear."
After the meeting, Jeff Johnson said he was largely pleased with the proposed pilot program, although he said he would prefer that it include a requirement for all food truck operators to buy liability insurance. He also said that, once a truck owner gets written permission to park on someone's property, it should apply for the rest of the year. He has recently setup regular lunchtime appointments for his pizza truck at Westbrook Brewing and Half Moon Outfitters.
Johnson's wife, Carolina One realtor Di Johnson, said she was glad to see the quick response from town government on the matter and a passionate debate in the council chambers.
"It was the first time in a long time that I thought our government was working," she said.