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The Humble Chuckwagon: Why Such a Stir?

Sep 21st, 2012 | By | Category: Feature

by Julie Welch

Ice Queen food truck

Back in 1866, a popular cattle herder and rancher in Texas realized that there was a niche (and need) for convenient, road-ready food for his fellow wranglers who often spent months at a time on the road, corralling wild Texas longhorns. Fast-forward 140 years, and replace the hungry herdsman with modern working man; replace the cattle and countryside with a downtown landscape at lunchtime, and you’ll see that the chuck wagon is still alive and kicking in a huge number of cities. This phenomenally popular quick food alternative enjoys incredible success in many cities, working symbiotically with the needs of the local economy, and offering the community a glimpse into other cultures through the universal language of food. And often, the fare is healthier and cheaper than grabbing something nondescript at the window of a big-chain box. With these fundamental positives in mind, why would there be such a stir about bringing food trucks to downtown Greensboro?

Parlez vous crepe

Carrboro’s Parlez Vous Crepe food truck.

There are to date about 3 million food trucks in regular operation here in the United States. Most of these reside and flourish in metropolises such as New York City, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, and Chicago. Granted, Greensboro is nowhere near these cities in terms of population, but let’s look at how and why food trucks can be a thriving and successful addition to almost any sized city. If it is accepted practice (and it is, everywhere) for brick-and-mortar restaurants to operate next-door to each other, at what point does the food truck become a threat to existing businesses instead of healthy competition, an entirely natural part of business in general? If mobile food trucks are deemed a bad thing for one city, how do they manage to survive in other places? And with repeated outcry over the years to make downtown Greensboro a more viable and attractive ‘destination’ spot, how have we remained resistant to change?

From a purely ignoble stand-point, one might see how the owner of an existing downtown restaurant might be uneasy at the thought of another food vendor being thrown into the mix. Fare from food trucks is typically priced lower than the cost of lunch from a sit-down restaurant. With the economy in the state it has been, we’ve also seen some downtown restaurants come and go in the blink of an eye. We see empty store fronts downtown, we know and are friends with local business owners who are struggling to pay the bills. Yet with all of these realities, one must look past the initial thought of menace to see that a perceived threat may actually turn out to be a big ol’ helping of progress…

When a person or a group of persons feels threatened, we tend to experience what has been long-termed ‘fight-or-flight’ response – meaning, in short, that we either prepare to run or we prepare to defend ourselves. In matters of municipal commerce, this response becomes multi-faceted, with personal agendas, political caveats, and the voice of the people all crashing together, imbroglio-style. Where does our collective sense of community lie? Where do our local city government officials stand on the matter – with or against us? Why would anyone want to stand in the way of progress?

And gosh darn it! What about cities who have taken the initiative and are seeing the benefits of change? Are we not, on the whole, able to learn by example? With the current public support advocating food trucks as part of a sustainable downtown, what’s the hitch? My (teensy) apologies for the melodramatic tone and a million question marks, but I’d like to point out that to date, our upcoming Food Truck Festival has over 1,300 tentative attendees – people who are foodies, or those who merely enjoy noshing on stuff you cannot find at franchise eateries, folks who enjoy new food experiences, those who want to see Greensboro thrive in all areas – culture, commerce, art, music, diversity, and FOOD. Even if only half of these fine folks turn out on Sunday, I’d still call that a good show of public support. (For the record, I hope they all turn out.)

Durham food truck

The Durham Food Truck Rodeo (Flickr CC by sleepyneko)

Let’s talk about Durham, NC. We know it; most of us have visited for a variety of reasons. Durham is home to widely-acclaimed restaurants (Watt’s Grocery, anyone?), tons of local music, art galleries, museums, and has a long, famous history involving sports. Why am I talking about Durham when I live, work, play, and raise my family in Greensboro? Durham is a nice example of what can happen when the gradual breeze of change floats through a city, and since it’s relatively close population-wise to Greensboro, it’s a good paradigm for our food truck issue. Right now, there are more than two dozen food trucks operating in the Durham area. Durham has been dubbed the ‘Foodiest Small Town in America’, a super-neat reputation for a city of roughly 235,000 people. Not to infer that food trucks are responsible for all of Durham’s acclaim, but give pause to thought: they’ve made it work.

Chirba Chirba Dumplings

Durham’s Chirba Chirba Dumpling Truck

The restaurants that are housed in buildings downtown and elsewhere cohabitate with food trucks that roll around the city. Of course, there is competition between the two – that’s how it’s supposed to work – but one should not ignore the idea that businesses can also be an asset to one another. It bears merit to mention that it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows in the Bull City where food trucks are concerned; the community there has dealt with its own share of grief, dealing with regulations, licensing, and other concerns similar to what we’re dealing with now. Despite this, food trucks thrive, and in turn, so do other businesses, as well as other restaurants.

Recently, I traipsed up Elm Street to the areas with a small multitude of working folks, coming and going from their office buildings near Center City Park. In the spirit of friendly ambush, I asked 16 random people to let me have their thoughts regarding food trucks in downtown Greensboro. Most of them weren’t aware that there was a debate happening at all – not surprising and I’m okay with that. I asked everyone where they usually grabbed their lunch from, if not bringing it from home or ordering something for delivery.

Nearly everyone replied that they regularly (2-3 times a work week) drove just outside of the downtown area to patronize big-chain fast food places (McDonald’s on Summit Avenue, Sonic, Taco Bell, etc.), at times bringing back food for multiple people in their offices.

Cafe Prost

Raleigh’s Cafe Prost recently recognized in “Everyday with Rachael Ray” magazine.

When asked if they’d like an alternative lunch option in the form of an array of food trucks, every single person was hip to the idea. A quick lunch without the drive, at comparable prices, with more and different selections? Yes, they all were very keen to that idea. I then asked them if they ever patronized sit-down restaurants downtown. They all did – but for typically specific occasions like a friend’s birthday, to celebrate pay day, or for dinner and drinks in the evening. Would they continue to go to these places if they also had the option of food trucks at lunch time? Yes. A resounding yes. Granted, they are only a small handful of the people that are Greensboro’s work populace, but there was not one encounter of opposition during the course of this informal face-to-face survey.

This point leads us to peruse another surface of this topic: spending our money at locally- based businesses as opposed to national (and international) franchises, and how that is a very good and vital thing for local business owners, their patrons, and the community as a whole. I was never a business major, but it’s pretty simple: it’s known in the economic world as the ‘multiplier affect’, which, in a nutshell, demonstrates that when consumers spend their money at say, the local mom-and-pop hardware store instead of a corporation-owned megastore, that money is more likely to stay in circulation LOCALLY, and not end up in the pocket of a shadowy CEO somewhere. More local businesses can prosper and help each other out. See where I’m going with this? Like a parent raising up their wee ones, the members of a community can also help it grow by approaching things with a common goal in mind: to develop our community into a growing, healthy place where people want to be and enjoy living and visiting.

During the course of learning and researching for this piece, I reached out and talked to many people. I was pressed to find voices of opposition that would allow me to publicly convey their words, in part due to thinking they’d be called out or otherwise targeted.

Understandable.

Because of that, I’ve chosen to leave people’s names out of this article entirely, regardless of their stance. So I’ll focus instead on what I heard echoing endlessly and unanimously from those who are supporters of the food truck movement. That support is based in the desire to see Greensboro grow; to see it become a place that people can experience the diverse cultures that are present; to foster a bigger sense of community and support; to strengthen Greensboro’s economy. Their support is based in a positive view of our city’s future, as well as in their palate, not in any form of malcontent with an ulterior motive. This was a palpable feeling I gathered; widespread, exciting, and quite lovely to see.

El Azteca food truck

Taqueria el Azteca on Spring Garden.

My very humble opinion on food trucks in downtown Greensboro is this: there is a wealth of information available in regards to this whole discussion, and it’s worth talking about. I’ve touched on just on the tip and wandered quite a bit; resources and voices are plentiful. As it stands, we’ve received permission for a ‘trial run’ to gauge public interest and demand (beginning October 1st and running for two months). Whilst I do not agree with the way the trial has been mapped out, I am glad to see something happening. As many people have reacted to the terms of the trial, I too feel as though it will not give the idea a fair chance. Limiting the trucks to four at a time, and tucking them away on Commerce Place, away from the true bustle of the downtown area, seems counter-intuitive and a bit suspect.

I extend a challenge to you, Greensboro. All you commoners, execs, working class/middle class/high class, students, farmers, high-brows, cynics, musicians, artistes, web trollers, blog writers, politicians, real-estate owners, government members, word smiths, bar crawlers, poets, business owners, foodies and everyone else who depends on food to live: if you oppose the idea, give it a sincerely honest chance; if you’re already a supporter, stay vocal. The only way to move forward is to kick apathy in the pants!

I’ll end this by extending a big thank you to the people who took time out of their days to talk with me and help me learn about this topic – whether you support or oppose the idea, your opinions are valued and your time is very much appreciated. Hope to see you at the Spring Garden Food Truck Festival this coming Sunday, September 24th from 4-9pm. Come hungry, in both stomach and mind!

 

Informative bites and tasty bits:

Dowtown GSO Food Trucks Blog

City of Greensboro – Business and Development

Greensboro City Council Votes for Food Truck Pilot Program (with video)

Greensboro Food Trucks Facebook Group

 

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9 Comments to “The Humble Chuckwagon: Why Such a Stir?”

  1. Matty Sheets says:

    nice! I'm hungry.

  2. Billy Jones says:

    In my opinion the food truck trial is designed for failure. Granted, my figures are based on 7 days a week and not 5 days a week but 2 less days a week limits potential truck earnings to an even larger degree: http://greensboroperformingarts.blogspot.com/2012

    Then one only needs look back at the true story of Greensboro's hotdog carts to understand the black souls of those who rule this city http://greensboroperformingarts.blogspot.com/2012

  3. Sarah says:

    judging from last night's huge turnout,there is a ton of suppory for it. Yay foodtrucks

  4. Jim M says:

    The people have spoken regarding food trucks.

    But were DGI and the City Council listening?

  5. Dale Glenn says:

    3 million food trucks in the U.S.? That's 60,000 per state. Might want to check that figure. I think Entrepreneur posted that figure a while back and others have run with it.

    Could have used a few more on Sunday for sure. I didn't get any food, but look forward to patronizing these trucks in a less crowded atmosphere. Obviously Greensboro is intrigued by rolling restaurants. I've eaten from the Chirba Chirba, El Azteca, and 1618 trucks before and many more in other cities. All were excellent.

  6. Rae Alton says:

    Jim, I agree – the demand from Greensboro residents is undeniable now. However, I doubt that DGI (or Roy Carroll) would ever listen, or care. I think the demand for food trucks makes it even more horrifying to them, than if GSO was apathetic or lackadaisical about it. If it's Demands of the People vs. Demands of Notable Business Owners, the latter will always take precedence. It's a problem, a huge one, but it's the city council that matters.

    Regarding the City Council, I think the real question isn't "are they listening?" but "have they doomed the pilot program to failure?" The important metrics won't be popularity or food truck profit, I fear.

  7. Billy Jones says:

    Rae, I think it's pretty apparent that had the Spring Garden event not taken place there would have been no food trucks signed up for Greensboro's trial. (All the sign-ups have been since Sunday.) I just wonder if the weekday restrictions and parking problems during work hours might make it a bottom line loss for the food truck operators. Not to mention the outrageous rates being charged by the City. These operators generally pay $25 to $40 dollars for unlimited use in a 24 hour day but in the trial it's $20 for 5 hours.

    If the food truckers are to continue to profit they will be forced to charge higher prices in Greensboro than in other cities. Again, designed to fail.

    On the plus side, there is nothing to eat in the Guilford County Courthouse and the food trucks will be the closest stop.

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