Sunday, May 29, 2011

Asheville Independent Restaurant Association Position Regarding Mobile Vending in Asheville

The Asheville Food Truck issue is a hot issue these days.  Just check out the recent article in the Asheville Citizen-Times article about the 'speed bumps' for food truck vendors or another article in AC-T reasoning that food trucks have unfair advantages.

However you look at it, our local independent restaurants are weighing in on the subject.

Asheville Independent Restaurant Association Positioning Paper Regarding Mobile Vending

May 26th, 2011


Mobile vending is a mainstay in many large metropolitan areas where population density and high volume foot traffic create demand for business transactions on the street. This trend has been celebrated as an outlet for entrepreneurs looking for an inexpensive, low-risk, moveable venue for their business idea. Many mobile vendors have also left a positive mark on food trends, encouraging culinary professionals to embrace the creative global melting pot reflected at the American table – from Korean tacos to Mississippi Delta tamales.

No one applauds the spirit of entrepreneurship and independence more than the Asheville Independent Restaurants. It is a part of our identity. In our organization’s mission statement, we confirm our commitment to local food, local businesses, local people, local philanthropies and our local economy. We are proud of our contributions in making our city a thriving, vibrant place to live, work and play.

AIR Supports Mobile Vending

AIR is proud of our long-term commitment to the city and the county, generating over $5 million in payroll taxes each year, more than $200,000 in property taxes, and over $4.5 million in annual sales tax. We are committed to the maintenance and aesthetics of the buildings we inhabit and invest regularly in the local businesses that support our restaurants’ upkeep – from carpenters, painters, landscapers and equipment maintenance companies to cleaning companies.

AIR believes it is critical the city consider the total potential impact of a rapid expansion of mobile street vending, not only in terms of the hard work of many hands to revitalize our city over the years, but also in terms of creating a model for these businesses that is both profitable and sustainable. Right now, food trucks are a new trend. Next year’s passion and subsequent trend are anyone’s guess. Can mobile vending – and food trucks in particular -- be a part of our unique culture in Asheville? Of course! We fully expect this model of retailing to have a place in our community. In fact, AIR has members who plan to actively participate. We have never been and are not against mobile food trucks. We simply believe there’s a need to construct ordinances that enhance the inherent personality and vitality of our community. We need to ensure that any blueprint for this new world of mobile vending allows for future mobile vending trends and results in a positive outcome for everyone.

The Need For Due Diligence

Because we honor our close relationship with the heartbeat of the city, AIR offers this document as our position on the current proposed mobile vending ordinance outline. We strongly believe that the ordinance, as it is currently outlined, falls substantially short of the due diligence our community needs and deserves to address such a significant issue. There’s a lot at stake! Asheville has spent millions of dollars establishing itself as a desirable destination, its centerpiece being a vibrant, eclectic and diverse downtown full of local independent businesses. We have concerns about unknowns and ambiguity in the ordinance – why are there unlimited permits and who has the responsibility of managing them? Who is responsible for establishing aesthetically pleasing mobile vending areas and street fronts, for monitoring public food safety and health code and inspection requirements, and for enforcing the details of the ordinance, especially during the late evening and early morning hours of operation? The objective isn’t to place undue burdens or regulations on these mobile vending units but to provide, through planning and due diligence, a framework for sustainability, profitability and safety.

One Size Does Not Fit All

In researching the impact of mobile vending in other cities and communities, we see one common thread – those cities who have not set up the proper rules, regulations and infrastructure to oversee and manage this burgeoning trend are now struggling to deal with the complex issues related to mobile vending. Several cities, including Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, are now revising their ordinances to make them more restrictive. Portland, OR -- previously held up as a positive example in some regards -- is also discussing adding new restrictions to manage challenges in what is now a saturated market. As a result of these significant hiccups, other major cities who have recently implemented or are in the process of implementing food truck ordinances, such as Chicago and Minneapolis, have been more prudent in implementing such ordinances.

In addition, Asheville is not as large as these metropolitan areas with active food truck ordinances and zoning. We suggest as part of the city’s due diligence that some quantitative research be conducted to understand what level of mobile vending a market the size of Asheville can support, especially in our Central Business Districts. It is imperative that we pause, study, learn and consider how other cities, who are recognized for the best practices supporting mobile vendors, are making it happen.

Funding Questions

Furthermore, we believe it is critical to explicitly outline how this effort impacts our city’s budget. From the standpoint of fiscal responsibility, does the city have the resources to enforce ordinances with an unlimited number of food trucks in the city so the public’s health, safety and general welfare are not compromised? What line item in the city’s budget would fund the additional enforcement of these ordinances and how many additional city staff would be required, especially in the late evening and early morning hours of operation? Has a permit fee cost analysis been completed to show the economic break-even point for the number of vendors versus the increased enforcement costs?

Our Recommendation And Support From AIR

AIR would respectfully recommend our city leaders take the necessary action to fully understand the issues and priorities around a mobile vending ordinance so that any expansion of this business model in our city is managed for its long-term success. To be perfectly clear, AIR is committed to the profitability, sustainability and safety of mobile vending in Asheville and wants to be part of the team that helps make this ordinance strong and effective. The last thing any of us wants is to establish ordinances that are doomed from the start.

This is a complex issue and one with which many cities and communities are currently wrestling. The issue touches many aspects of our community – public safety and health, taxes, tourism, economic impact and industries like our restaurant community. It would be wise to move forward with this ordinance only after fully identifying and understanding all of the ramifications associated with it. Remember this is a mobile vending issue and on the horizon are other potential mobile retailers – tattoo artists, cosmetologists, jewelers and pet groomers are some examples.

Some quantitative research and study of best practices to fully and responsibly understand the best way to establish mobile vending in Asheville is essential to introducing this trend successfully. We are different from larger metropolitan areas and have different concerns. Let’s seek to understand first, to be thoughtful and diligent, before hastily implementing a model that could result in more expense, more problems and more challenges for our community.

None of the questions we raise are insurmountable. And as we realize the development of an ordinance is a work in progress, we want to be part of making it the best ordinance of its kind in the country. Towards that end, AIR would like to offer to engage – and pay for -- the assistance of two nationally recognized experts in the field of mobile food vending. Both of these individuals are very pro-food mobile vending.

John T. Edge, who writes for The New York Times as well as many other publications and who is Executive Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, is author of many books about food and food culture. He is publishing a book about the street food movement through Workman Publishing in the fall of 2012 and has done extensive research across the United States. He has witnessed firsthand the pros and cons of different cities, communities and models.

Edge directed us to Warren Hansen, who is a full-time employee of the city of Madison, Wisconsin, and has functioned as curator of carts and street vending in that community. In speaking with Hansen, he and another full-time employee oversee a highly respected and well-established system and process for a thriving street food mobile vending community in Madison. Because this issue has become a complex one for many cities, Hansen is now in much demand as a consultant and speaker on best practices.

AIR believes these two experts could help Asheville shape its ordinances, procedures and specifications so that any mobile vending community established in our city could not only succeed but thrive and become a model for other medium to small American cities. If Asheville intends to embrace food trucks, and more importantly mobile vending, we should do so to ensure we are held as an example – like Madison, Wisconsin – for bringing thoughtful and effective definition to the roles and responsibilities of all concerned.

The Asheville Independent Restaurant Association Board of Directors

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