IT IS the stuff drooling dreams are made of:
Sriracha-soaked barbecue on a stick. Lobster rolls dripping in butter. Mexican Korean short rib tacos so delicious they have more Twitter followers than certain Kardashians.
Such culinary creativity, so many tantalizing possibilities, served fast and hot and handed out a window on wheels. And we can dispense with all that napkin-on-the-lap nonsense, ‘cause we’re gonna scarf it all down standing up.
Then there are the punny names: Basic Kneads Pizza (Denver), Truck U BBQ (Las Vegas), and my personal favorite, Ms. Cheezious Grilled Cheese (Miami).
Oh, dear gourmet gods, how we love food trucks. Or at least the idea of them, anyway.
While cities like Portland and Philly have seen up to a 200 percent increase in rolling restaurants in the last two years, Savannah has been thus far deprived of this travelling gastronomic goodness.
That could change very soon: Last week the City of Savannah rolled out a draft of a new mobile food service ordinance that establishes parameters for operating food trucks, including permitting, licensing and possible locations.
But don’t stock up on heartburn meds just yet.
The ordinance is very much still in dough form; the ingredients are there, but it ain’t even half baked. Drawing from regulations in Austin, Raleigh and other foodie-friendly towns, city staffers have prepared a raw doc that allows food trucks to operate in certain areas on private property as long as they’re at least 200 feet from a residential dwelling or a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
There’s a tentative map floating around that excludes almost the entire historic district, and the amount of food trucks would be limited to two per acre and max of four per location.
It’s a recipe that admittedly needs a lot of testing.
“We had to start somewhere,” reminds Citizen Office Director Susan Broker. “We haven’t written a perfect ordinance. We’re looking for input.”
To help beef up—or water down—some of the proposed rules and allowed locales, Broker and reps from the city’s zoning, revenue and health departments are hosting a series of forums on what’s appears to be the season’s spiciest topic. (Can anyone else recall another issue that warranted NINE public meetings? Maybe if someone were to drive a burrito truck over to the Eastside, the folks getting their neighborhoods shot up might get some attention?)
No doubt, food trucks are serious business: The $1.2 billion industry is expanding like an overstuffed shwarma, and pop-up events like the Savannah Food Truck Festival have locals salivating for more.
They also present a nuisance to established restaurants, which must abide by regulations more stringent than the proposed mobile ordinance and pay property taxes that far exceed the $150 city license fee. The competition adds to the stress of high rents and the proposed minimum wage increase.
“No restaurant owner wants to wake up and find a food truck parked outside their brick-and-mortar,” explains Mike Vaquer, representing the Georgia Restaurant Association and the Savannah Restaurant Owners Group.
“The proposed $150 fee is woefully inadequate. We just want a level playing field.” (Dang, if he’d said “leavened” we could keep the tasty puns going!)
Vaquer also warns that anything passed by the City of Savannah must conform to the extremely complex state rules: “Ultimately, the Georgia Food Code is the driver.”
Local grub mogul Brian Huskey, whose Gaslight Group empire includes B. Matthews, the 5 Spot, Abe’s on Lincoln and Blowin’ Smoke, isn’t opposed to food trucks, but he’s felt the dent in business on St. Patrick’s Day, when vendors often set up hot dog and coffee stands nearby.
“I’d hate to have something like that happen every day,” says Huskey. “But if this goes through, I’ll definitely consider buying one.”
He’d like to see food trucks corralled to a specific area like the old Sears parking lot or the roundabout at Daffin Park and perhaps move around around throughout the month, though he admonishes the profit-skewering dangers of overregulation.
Others scoff that a field of unmoving food trucks is essentially a restaurant trailer park and continue to root for some kind of food truck presence in the already-crowded downtown corridor.
Ellis Square was redesigned to accommodate a farmers market and vendor stalls, though the late night tinderbox of a bunch of drunk, hangry people waiting on a gawdamn fancy taco is a concern.
And who really wants to slurp an oyster po’ boy with a carriage horse’s flank six inches from their face?
Like most good ideas around here, this crowdsourced ordinance will probably be beaten with a wet soba noodle until almost no one is happy. But it should, at the very least, give entrepreneurs like SFTF director Ryan Giannoni a piece of the quiche. (Omg, sorry, I can’t stop.)
Giannoni owns three food trucks under the umbrella company Savannah Street Eats that he keeps cookin’ for catering gigs and special events, with a fourth on the way. He’s happy that he’d be able to vend in some of the food-deserted neighborhoods on the proposed map, though he’d like to have an opportunity to park downtown for a spell.
“When you look at cities where food trucks thrive, they do best in high foot traffic areas,” says the gourmet burger/taco/grilled cheese peddler.
“But we’ll take what we can get. The city is putting a lot of time and effort into this, and we just want to put these trucks to work.”
He’s not alone: There are an estimated 4,000 food trucks operating in the U.S. and they’re touted as the hippest, hottest way for entrepreneurs to get in on the food service game with a relatively low investment and overhead.
Turns out that’s a bit of spun sugar. Every food truck must be tied to a “base of operations,” a licensed and approved commissary kitchen where food and materials are cleaned and kept, which adds expense and red tape. There’s also the matter of whether there’s enough demand for your pressed Portobello paninis.
“People saw the movie Chef and have these starry-eyed notions of making a million dollars with a truck and a Twitter feed,” chuckles one local restaurant consultant. “The reality is that there’s barely enough lunchtime business downtown to keep established restaurants afloat.”
But that won’t stop the dreamers from firing up the steamers. Maybe when it’s all fried and done, Savannah’s new food truck ordinance will protect our existing businesses while carving out a new economic sector on the food scene.
Can’t we have the whole empañada and eat it, too?