CHAPEL HILL - Six months after Chapel Hill let food trucks in, they still haven’t come.
The town has received zero permit applications from food truck owners since the Town Council created a new set of rules for them in late January.
Food truck vendors say the high fees and permitting costs are the main reason they’ve stayed away, but the town also has tight restrictions on where trucks can park, making it even harder to do business.
Now some town council members want to make the ordinance more food truck friendly.
Council member Lee Storrow plans to petition the council this month to lower the fees and ease other restrictions to encourage the trucks to come to town.
Storrow proposes making Chapel Hill’s fees comparable to Raleigh’s and using police officers to monitor them at night rather than a designated inspection agent, he said.
The town needs to better understand food trucks’ regional business model, which is based on an energetic, loyal customer base willing to cross city lines to follow the truck, he said.
“The biggest challenge we have faced is really not understanding the economic business model of food trucks,” he said. “It’s really based on operating in this entire region and not just one municipality."
Chapel Hill’s food truck fees are the most expensive in the Triangle, totalling $886 in permits and license fees for the vendor and the property owner that hosts the truck.
The town’s current rules came in the midst of an ongoing campaign to makeover the town’s business image, from a place of over-regulation and onerous restrictions to one of innovation and inclusiveness.
The town has spent thousands on an “Open for Business” advertising campaign to attract companies and earlier this month approved an incentive package for one business along with a new small business incubator space on West Rosemary Street downtown.
The food truck ordinance does little to enforce the new image, food truck supporters say.
Food truck businesses may be allowed in Chapel Hill, but they certainly don’t feel invited, said Jody Argote, owner of the Parlez Vous Crepes truck.
“The message that the food truck operators got from the Town of Chapel Hill was that food tucks weren’t really welcome there,” she said.
On top of the high fees, the other rules make it hard to find a spot to park, said Argote, who spoke at several public hearings on the rules last year. Instead, she gets plenty of business from serving her crepes in Carrboro, Hillsborough and Durham.
“Even once you decide to pay the fees, there’s very few places where you can go [in Chapel Hill]," she said. “I would love to be there but it doesn’t make economic sense.”
Running a food truck in other Triangle cities is significantly cheaper than Chapel Hill. Total permit and license costs for food truck in Raleigh are $226, in Durham it’s $75 and Carrboro it’s $85.
According to Chapel Hill’s current ordinance, food trucks are limited to private, non-residential property in Chapel Hill. They must be parked at least 100 feet from an existing restaurant and cannot interfere with the restaurant’s business.
A new ordinance should find a way to bring food trucks to town and “fill in the gaps” of what food is offered downtown, Storrow said. A great space for the trucks could be on West Franklin Street and Rosemary Street downtown, available after concerts at Local 506 or Nightlight get out late on weekends, he said.
“I think that helps create a sense of community culture and brings people into downtown [and] provide more opportunities to interact in our downtown,” he said.
Since Raleigh enacted new food truck regulations in October, the city has issued 11 location permits and 18 operational permits to food truck owners. Durham has permitted 115 trucks,
Carrboro has 13.
The Chirba Chirba Dumpling food truck was created by graduates of UNC-CH who live in Chapel Hill. They also haven’t applied for a permit to sell food in town mostly because of the cost, said Chela Tu, a co-owner and operator of the truck.
“We don’t need to go to Chapel Hill and spend the money on the annual permit because there are so many opportunities nearby that don’t cost as much,” she said. “It’s kind of unfortunate that I got schooled here, work here, live here, but I can’t run my business here.”
Chiba Chirba has a loyal following that frequents its truck on Sunday’s when it’s parked at Cliff’s Meat Market in Carrboro, and they’ve found that customers from Chapel Hill will make the trip. After people eat at their food truck, they often visit other nearby businesses, Tu said.
“It’ll only be a matter of time that Chapel Hill realizes what an asset to the community food trucks are and for local businesses,” she said.
The food truck rules passed unanimously with little discussion in January, after more than a year of feedback from residents, restaurant and food truck owners.
The night they he helped pass the ordinance, Council member Jim Ward said he had concerns.
“The rules were irrelevant because we weren’t going to get any activity form food trucks because of the costs,” he said. Ward also plans to ask town staff to look into the ordinance and may propose some changes to be considered in the fall, he said. As a part of the town’s economic development efforts, it’s important to both nurutre old businesses and attract new ones, he said. A food truck ordinance needs to strike that balance.
“Human nature is to say no to change, regardless of what the change is, and with some reconsideration, I’m hoping we can find some elements of the current regulations we can modify..that can make it more user friendly to where food tucks can appear in Chapel Hill regularly.”