Downtown Knoxville Food Fight

Food Trucks at the Market Square Farmers' Market
Food Trucks at the Market Square Farmers’ Market

We have crumbling buildings that need to be rescued. We have buildings being torn down, parking problems, decisions to be made about the future of entire city blocks. We have a homeless population that seems to be fueling more pervasive and aggressive panhandling. We’re trying to figure out just who in the heck we are as a city. In the midst of all this do we need to be slinging burgers and tacos at each other?

The topic has been simmering recently, with whispers of a serious rift between the brick and mortar restaurants and their food truck cousins. Friday the rumors burst into the open with a publication of a letter from Keith Stewart, the attorney retained by brick and mortar restaurants, and a response from the food trucks. Cari Wade Gervin published the respective letters online for Metro Pulse.

Mr. Canteen
Mr. Canteen

Basically, the city is considering regulations for food trucks and some of the local restaurant owners – though not all – are upset at the prospect of losing business. The restaurants listed on the letter include Bistro at the Bijou, the French Market, Crown and Goose, Bella Luna, Cocoa Moon, Koi, Trio, Dazzo’s, Coolato Gelato, Soccer Taco, Rita’s Italian Ice, Laurel Mountain Eatery, Garrett’s Deli, Steamboat, Pete’s, Shono’s, Cru, Shuck, Southbound, Lil’ Vinies, and Da Vinci’s. Not listed, but hinted as supporting the prevention of food trucks on downtown streets are Tupelo Honey and Tomato Head. The letter indicates he has spoken to property owners who are also opposed.

The letter is directed to the city and notes that food trucks are fine – just not downtown. He states, “Allowing food trucks, food trailers and mobile food vendors of any sort in downtown will adversely affect the loyal customer base, atmosphere, and business developed at great cost to downtown restaurant owners.” What follows is a list of various problems with food trucks operating downtown. It’s a long list.

Hoof Truck
Hoof Truck

Among the statements and concerns, Mr. Stewart claims that, “restaurant density in the CBID provides more seats than customers.” He notes that food trucks do not contribute to the downtown tax base, do not have restroom facilities, impeded traffic, are covered in illegal advertising, poach business and come in only on the best days and peak times. He continues, “Every dollar in revenue extracted by the food trucks comes out of the pockets of stable and permanent members of the community. Short term profiteering could easily lead to a diminished stable tax base. The lunch business developed by the fixed location restaurants must be protected from the incursion of food trucks.”

The letter continues with the statement that the only logical place for a pilot program for food trucks is the World’s Fair Park. It’s underutilized and has fixed restrooms, Mr. Stewart points out. He suggests the city consult local property owners, by which he means people who own buildings, not the residents who own homes in the CBID.

Breakfast taco from a Knoxville Food truck
Breakfast taco from a Knoxville Food truck

The food truck owners, meanwhile have banded together and have named their association the Knoxville Mobile Restaurant Association. The KMRA thought just a couple of weeks earlier that a deal had been reached in which they would voluntarily contribute to CBID and make other concessions to the restaurants to allay some of their concerns. Apparently the restaurants reconsidered.

The response letter points out that among other things, the mobile restaurants can provide food quickly for the office workers downtown who are pressed for time. Providing an outlet for young entreprenours and a direct market for some local farms such as Cruise Farms, Century Harvest Farms and Riverplains Farm also is a function best served by food trucks and adds to a metropolitan culture. It quotes the Institute of Justice as saying, “Claims that food trucks spell doom for local restaurants are not only unsupported, but are also contradicted by the experiences of other cities . . . For example, the continued growth of the food-truck industry in Los Angeles–the birthplace of the modern food truck–in no way diminished L.A.’s vibrant restaurant scene . . . cities with the most vibrant food-truck scenes also have booming restaurant industries.”

Mr. Canteen, too
Mr. Canteen, too

The letter cites cities in which food trucks are seen as having a positive impact on established restaurants by increasing the number of people who come to an area frequented by food trucks and who are exposed to those and other dining options. Austin, Houston and Las Vegas are among the examples provided. In Houston, according to this letter, the brick and mortar restaurants are behind a request asking the city to ease restrictions on food trucks.

Additionally, a trend in many cities is for established restaurants to begin operation of food trucks, thus extending their reach. More common perhaps are the chefs who, after operating a food truck to raise revenue, open their own brick and mortar restaurant. Without the capacity to start small, these entrepreneurs may never have been able to establish the restaurants they opened. Within the New York Food Truck Association, for example, forty percent of the members have gone on to open restaurants.

In summation the letter, penned by Johnathan Borsodi, requests that the city reject calls to put proximity restrictions on food trucks, noting that these “protectionist” measures have been found to be unconstitutional. He points out that food trucks already have to meet the same requirements as restaurants in terms of health department requirements and business licenses. He suggests voluntary contributions to the C.B.I.D. and asks that special events be considered separately, presumably because during events like the Farmers’ Market, different considerations would be in order.

Savory and Sweet Truck

So, there you have the sordid details, believe it or not, in a very condensed version. I can’t add much, but I will say that it mystifies me that with so many cities already having worked this out, Knoxville business owners have to resort to this sort of legal saber rattling. I spend a very large percentage of my food budget at some of the very restaurants listed in the first letter. I also have enjoyed each of the food trucks in the new association. I generally know when I leave home which way I’m leaning between the two. They each meet my needs at various times and I appreciate the choice.

I can’t verify everything the mobile restaurant folks are saying, but I can say for a certainty that I question what Mr. Stewart claims when he says that “restaurant density in the CBID provides more seats than customers,” I have to wonder if he’s ever eaten downtown. Has he ever tried to get a seat at dinner time in a downtown restaurant. I think there are more customers than seats – often. Tupelo Honey, as an example, often has an hour or more wait. How is a food truck going to hurt that?

As for the downtown atmosphere being damaged by the presence of food trucks, I would argue just the opposite. I like the atmosphere much better with food trucks. It increases the diversity of the offerings, and makes the streets festive. The food is, generally, a very high quality, and can be had quickly. The best thing about the atmosphere is the spirit of choice, which is what a city should have, not a cartel of control by a few. Their presence makes the streets of downtown Knoxville feel like a bigger city. Why do we always panic when we take a step forward as an urban environment?

Once this hit social media this weekend, I was surprised at the immediate response. I assumed there would be a mixture of opinion expressed, and I found very little support for the restaurant owners. People became angry and began calling for boycotts of the restaurants who have come out in opposition to the trucks. An online petition was established that calls for the restaurants to welcome the food trucks as “part of a rich urban environment.” Basically, the restaurants got slammed. While I didn’t see that coming, I’m not sure what the restaurants hoped to accomplish by making their letter public.

I spoke to Johnathan Borsodi and a colleague and they suggested perhaps the restaurants wanted to get their message out first. They also pointed out that with 20,000 or more downtown workers on a given day, it’s hard to make the case for the restaurants being able to handle the potential demand and that food trucks would serve workers who don’t have the leisure to sit down for a restaurant meal.

They also noted two groups who benefit directly from food trucks: local farmers who sell their product directly through trucks and the, primarily young and often very talented, chefs who do not have the money to invest in their own restaurant. Referring to them as the “new spectrum of culinary talent,” they made the point that these are the kinds of young, creative talent we want to attract to and retain in Knoxville.

So, as best and as briefly as I can explain it, there are the two positions. I still don’t understand if cities like Birmingham, Alabama can work this out, how is it possible we aren’t as smart as they are or at least smart enough to copy them. What do you think? Food trucks are an unfair competition and should be relegated to the World’s Fair Park or the restaurants need to find a way to work with them? City council members may be reading your comments, so let it fly.