Food trucks are more popular than ever with diners, but that doesn’t mean they are without controversy. Most cities are protective of their downtown brick-and-mortar restaurants and Southern Pines is no exception.
On Monday, town leaders discussed a proposed text amendment that would allow food trucks to operate on private lots in the commercial business district, which encompasses a broad swath of land in the South Broad area near Morganton Road and old U.S. 1. The change, if approved, would not alter existing rules that prohibit food trucks in the 10-block area identified as the historic district.
Currently, they are only permitted in these two zoning districts with an approved special event permit.
The text amendment request was prompted by the owners of Hatchet Brewing Co. Located in a small shopping plaza along Broad Street, south of the primary shopping district, their tap room has featured a regular rotation of food trucks and live music on Saturdays.
Developer Dave Crisafulli, co-owner of the shopping center, spoke in support of the text amendment and disputed the notion that they have an adverse impact on traditional restaurants.
“I do not understand the objection to food trucks. They add vibrancy and bring more foot traffic downtown,” he said. “People like food trucks. It is not an either/or discussion.”
Hatchet owners Mike Carey and Greg Walker are looking for relief from having to apply for special event permits for each Saturday, especially since they have received negative attention because of the frequency of those requests.
“All was fine until there were citizens that were trying to impede their ability to get special event permits,” Crisafulli said. “We’ve even heard of people calling the food truck vendors and telling them what they are doing is illegal by the town’s UDO (ordinances)...We are trying to get on the front end of this. We are trying to get some clarity and consistency.”
Councilman Mike Saulnier said ordinances on food trucks in the commercial business district predates Hatchet’s operation; therefore, the zoning restriction should not have come as a surprise to the owners.
“I don’t know or have a clear picture of what the impacts would be on other zoning districts. This doesn’t apply to one area, but applies to everything (in that zoning designation),” he cautioned. “The worst thing we could do is a broad brush decision that would put other areas or the historic district at a disadvantage.”
Crisafulli countered that he owns multiple properties, including in the historic district, and it would not be in his own interest to push for a change that would damage those property values. He also noted Hatchet cannot add a commercial kitchen because there is not enough parking in the private lot to meet the town’s restaurant requirement.
“We’ve been told we are using a loop hole,” said Carey. “At no point did we think we were trying to circumvent the rules. We are just trying to conduct business like breweries do. We have a food truck outside one day a week for six hours.”
“I understand that we don’t want food trucks allowed all over the place,” he added. “I don’t believe we are stealing business from other businesses. I feel we are bringing people downtown.”
Bell Tree Tavern owner Con O’Mahoney and former council member Chris Smithson spoke against the proposed text amendment.
“Our downtown has experienced many cycles of change and fragility over the years. In our current environment, the restaurant industry has been hit like no other. In the last few months, we have seen several downtown restaurants close, including one just this week,” Smithson wrote in an open letter email sent to town officials. “Now is not the time to hurt them even more by “changing the rules” and tilting the playing field even more against them.”
Mayor Carol Haney also noted how the pandemic has impacted local businesses and expressed concern about large gatherings of people at Hatchet Brewing not maintaining social distancing.
Carey said they have signs posted at the door requesting that patrons wear a face mask when not seated at their table.
“It is a troublesome thing to try to enforce but we do our best,” he said. “At no time are we trying to blow off regulations.”
Councilman Mitch Lancaster said food trucks have an advantage right now because of COVID-19 restrictions, but that was not the question at hand.
“I like that we do have restrictions. Nobody wants one on every single corner,” he said. “But I don’t think this is a zero sum game. I don’t think there is a limited number of dollars for restaurants...People come for food trucks. I think it does enhance downtown and brings dollars to downtown businesses.”
“If we approve this, we could always change it back if it doesn’t work,” Lancaster added.
Mayor Pro Tem Paul Murphy said he too enjoyed food trucks but agreed with Saulnier’s concern about applying to broad a brush to the regulations on them.
“While we know we are not going to be in the COVID situation forever, we have to be very careful about how we are implementing this now.”
Councilman Bill Pate said if food trucks in the commercial district can increase the number of people visiting the downtown area, that is not a bad thing; however, he agreed it was reasonable to allow for more research and consideration before making any policy changes.
“I think we need to dig down a bit deeper,” said Haney. “My opinion is we need to do our homework and dig deeper before we make a decision.”