For restaurant owners, grilled cheese and a side of angst

Published: Thursday, June 6 2013 6:20 p.m. MDT

Carl Rubadue of Rubadue's Saucey Skillet chats with Jaime White from his food truck at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 6, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Given what can be a prolonged winter in Utah, the chance to enjoy a meal in June sunshine while listening to live music is hard to pass up.

That's part of the recipe every week at Gallivan Plaza as hundreds of downtown workers and visitors partake in "Food Truck Thursday" — a year-round event that showcases food from seven mobile vendors serving a variety of culinary fare.

But while lines and favorable customer comments indicate the trucks are a popular addition to Salt Lake, some local restaurant owners say the trucks cut into their lunchtime crowd and offer an unfair advantage to food purveyors not burdened by the costs and fees of brick and mortar restaurants.

“It’s turned into a food court rather than an exposure to different foods,” said Rich Shellene, owner or Rich’s Burgers & Grub located across the street from the Gallivan Center at 30 E. Broadway (300 South). “We’re all for free enterprise, all for the trucks being over there. We just don’t think it’s a level playing field.”

Shellene and several other restaurant owners along Broadway and on Main Street have expressed concern to the city about the impact the Thursday events are having on their businesses.

“It’s like having seven new restaurants pull up … and not paying any fees and it’s hurting our sales,” Shellene said.

Seven trucks participate at a time from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Thursday. Each truck must reapply each week for the opportunity to participate.

While the food truck owners are required, like all other dining establishments, to purchase a business license and a food preparation permit, the mobile vendors are not required to pay to be on the plaza for the weekly event. It’s an issue that concerns traditional restaurant owners like Royal Tyler, owner of the Judge Café and Grill.

He said the food trucks offer direct competition on one of their busiest days. Until recently, Thursdays had been a key weekday revenue producer for his establishment. But over the past month as the weather has gotten warmer, there has been a significant decline.

“I looked at the last four (Thursdays), and they're down between 17 and 30 percent,” he said. Revenues bounced up last week when the Gallivan Center Plaza hosted another event.

“The food trucks weren't here,” he said. “Gallivan had another event going on so they didn't have their food trucks in that week so all the restaurants had a good day — back to a normal day.”

Shellene said his sales have fallen 15 to 20 percent on Thursdays.

The food trucks

Carl Rubadue, owner of Rubadue’s Saucey Skillet food truck, said the mobile vendors have been well-received by patrons, but not by nearby eateries.

“The brick-and-mortar restaurants, by and large, think we have it easy,” Rubadue said. “(To them) I would say, 'Drive a day in our trucks. It’s not that easy.'”

While he acknowledged that he doesn’t pay a fee to park his truck on the plaza, he said added health inspections mobile vendors need to maintain permits and the difficulty of trying to find the “right spot” to serve food makes the business challenging.

“It’s a little more difficult than one thinks,” Rubadue said.

He said he serves 70 to 100 customers during the three-hour event. As for the fairness issue raised by nearby restaurants, he said the customers "are looking for a different experience.”

“Just like there is no single restaurant that everyone will want to go to on any given day, it’s another option for the consumer to experience.”

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