For restaurant owners, grilled cheese and a side of angst
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.”
When asked if he would still take part in the Thursday event if food trucks were required to pay to be on the plaza, Rubadue said it would depend on the cost and financial feasibility for his business.
Guy Behunin and his wife, Nancy, own the “Guy and his Wife Grilled Cheese” food truck. This is their first year in business, but they are already enjoying some success.
“The first day we did it was here and I didn't expect to serve 120 people,” he said. “It was crazy. It was off the hook.”
Nancy Behunin said running the food truck is a lot of hard work and her neck hurts, but business is better than they expected.
He said the truck costs about $50,000 and they could make $75,000 to $80,000 this year. He pays a commissary fee of $200 a month, plus maintenance on the vehicle along with typical food-related business expenses.
“Where else can you have your own truck and your own route and be successful right off the bat?” he said.
Food trucks have been popular in many states across the country for some time, with cities like Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., boasting scores of mobile vendors setting up in locations all over the metro areas.
Provo is currently considering the idea of creating a program that would bring food trucks to Utah County, but plans are still in the preliminary stages as city leaders await information on health code-related concerns. A formal plan has yet to be developed.
Salt Lake City, meanwhile, has been working to address the concerns raised by the brick-and-mortar restaurants, but has thus far been unable to determine an equitable solution.
“We are sensitive to their concerns,” said city spokesman Art Raymond. “Ultimately, what we are doing is growing the ongoing volume of traffic and continuing to cultivate downtown as a destination to come have lunch.”
He said the city is not trying to give mobile food businesses “an unfair exemption or track to success.”
“We want a level playing field and continue to believe that we can find a space where all of these businesses can peacefully coexist,” Raymond said.
Among the suggestions offered by restaurant owners is limiting the number of food trucks to two per week and alternating the lineup or moving the trucks closer to 200 South where there are fewer restaurants.
“We’re still working on it,” Raymond said. “It’s a solution we would like to see in partnership with all of our downtown businesses.”
Meanwhile, not everyone seems troubled by the increase in lunchtime offerings for Food Truck Thursday, especially those who dine downtown on a regular basis.
“It’s something different,” said Chad Andrew, who works in the central business district and frequents various restaurants each week. He said he appreciated the opportunity to sample new food offerings.
John Potter said it was nice to eat outside and try “something different” rather than go to the same eateries he visits on the other days of the week.
“We see the same stuff everyday, so trying something different is kind of fun,” Potter said. “I’m sure it’s an impact on (the brick-and-mortar restaurants), but we like the variety of it.”
Added Andrew: “We give them enough business on the other days of the week.”
First-time Food Truck Thursday patron Lysa Scarano said she enjoyed being outdoors "where you can meet up with people and everybody can get their own thing and the live music is a very big plus.”
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