The FOOD and the Fury

Free Enterprise. The great fevered dream of the west. There are fewer images in the modern mind that truly elicit the pure spirit of grassroots capitalism more than the food truck. It is indeed a wondrous, elusive object of desire, born of a passion for great and affordable food.

And while the collective gut of Downtown Jacksonville grows with each gourmet grilled cheese from a truck, a sizable swath of the city’s brick-and-mortar restaurants increasingly find themselves dealing with the fallout from the city’s new culinary fixation.

According to Tom Thornton, owner of The Bank BBQ & Bakery and leader of the Downtown Restaurant Association of Jacksonville, “It’s just not fair what these food trucks are doing.

“Lunch is our main time to make money, so we have about 12 hours a week–give or take–to actually make our living. Of course, you can’t do that when you have the food trucks eating up the majority of your customer base.”

Thornton’s claims are not without cause. In fact, First Coast News has recently reported that some owners have had to fire as many as three employees in the last couple months, with sales dropping 60 percent.

And according to the Jacksonville Business Journal, some restaurants’ revenue streams have dropped from 15 percent to as much as 40 percent since the Hogan Street food truck court opened.

Andy Patel, owner of the Pita Pit franchise near the Duval County Courthouse, reportedly told Jacksonville Business Journal that if it weren’t for catering, he would close his doors. “I thought about shutting down last week,” said Patel.

“Downtown Jacksonville, over the years, has lost about 30,000 people,” said Thornton. “Most recently, they lost 500 right here from just one company, CSX. So the pie is not as large as people think it is, and at the end of the day, there is just not enough business for both groups.”

And it’s not just the food trucks on Hogan Street which Thornton references. In fact, Thornton estimates there are at least 15 food trucks operating in the Downtown area at any given time, which significantly impacts Downtown restaurateurs.

“And this doesn’t just apply to food trucks,” Thornton clarifies. “If there were, say, another 15 to 20 restaurants that opened right where the food trucks are, we would be having the same problems.

“But they would at least be on a level playing field with us. They would be faced with the same issues that we are faced with. Like having employees, making Downtown permanently more beautiful, or having a nice restaurant that allows people to come and sit and enjoy their food.”

Which leads to Thornton’s other major criticism of the food truck scene: a lack of positive contribution to the Downtown area.

“Really, what do they contribute to Downtown that the restaurants don’t already have?” asks Thornton. “There is probably all of one truck that I’ve seen that actually serves something different than what the other 90 Downtown restaurants serve … 

“They don’t contribute any new food that isn’t already found Downtown. They don’t bring any new customers Downtown either, they’re simply slicing the pie of customers even thinner without having to pay any of the major costs that we have to afford. They don’t have to pay liability insurance for property, they don’t have to pay electric and water, they don’t have to pay for sewage or garbage pickup.”

According to some business owners, the cost of operating an actual restaurant Downtown can run at least $15,000 a month.

“They don’t have to pay the annual fee for the Downtown Vision Plan, they don’t pay any property taxes and, around 2 p.m., most of the trucks pack up and leave,” added Thornton. “They come down, reap the profits, and leave. And it’s not like these guys are hurting for money anyway, because many of them have brick-and-mortar restaurants, too.”

As far as Thornton and many other Downtown restaurant owners see it, the food trucks aren’t doing anything to permanently enhance the Downtown area.

“It’s just a carnival atmosphere with the food trucks,” said Thornton. “Is that what Downtown Jacksonville wants to look like? A carnival? Or does it want to look like a vibrant and growing metropolis?

“Cities like Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Orlando, Tampa and even the entire providence of Ontario, Canada are all places that have either seriously regulated food trucks, or outright barred them from the downtown areas.

“So Jacksonville is a little late on the fad, but at the same time, these major metropolitan areas–that are considerably more successful with their downtown areas–have realized that food trucks are not what they want.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be America if someone didn’t fervently disagree. Chriss Brown, the director of Jax Truckies, makes her case by noting the current legislation that was agreed upon a few years back.

“We’ve already gone through this back in 2014 with the City Council,” said Brown. “And if you look at the final legislation, you’ll have all the names of those that were in all the meetings along with everyone that had input.

“A lot of these restaurants that are upset right now were a part of that initial legislation and, of course, others chose not to be. So everyone already had their chance to voice any concerns they might have about the current setup.”

The legislation to which Brown is referring is Ordinance 2014-0472, which was officially introduced to the Jacksonville City Council in July 2014. The legislation, according to Brown, was the product of several months of meetings and compromises made between both sides of the food truck and restaurant divide.

A highly regulative piece of legislation, much of it includes specific limitations unique to food trucks. Such as being prohibited from locating within 15 feet of any crosswalk, building entrance or exit, or “any walk which leads directly from a building entrance or exit.”

The vehicles are also prohibited from locating within 20 feet of any bus stop, 25 feet of any intersection on a public street, right-of-way, driveway and/or alleyway, and–specific to Downtown–within 50 feet of any permanent establishment selling food for on-premise consumption (i.e., a restaurant).

“It actually ended up being a mutual piece of legislation,” said Brown. “The things they’re upset with now–like the food truck court on Hogan Street–all fit into that original agreement we made.

“And to say that we don’t give back to the community is probably the most egregious thing that someone could say. I would venture to guess that none of the restaurants, as a whole, give back as much as food trucks do.”

For example, Brown estimates that food truck owners–as a group–donate more than $100,000 annually in both food and cash donations, with each food truck donating a certain percentage of the day’s profits, usually between 8 and 10 percent, to various fundraisers in Jacksonville.

“Also, to say that we don’t have the same expenses is wrong,” added Brown. “We all have similar expenses. We pay the same taxes, we pay the same fees to the city, we pay the same fees to the state for a license–it’s no different for a mobile vendor than it is for a restaurant … 

“So I really don’t understand the argument that food trucks don’t have the same expenses as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Because even though we come into an area and are mobile, we still have to pay rent at each facility and location we set up at, as well as when we store our supplies and trucks overnight.”

As Brown and many other food truck owners see it, everybody is paying rent to somebody. It might not be Downtown proper, but they all have bills that need to be paid.

Councilman Reggie Gaffney, who represents the Downtown district, has also weighed in on the matter. Gaffney is currently in the process of hearing out both sides of the issue to determine a fair and equitable course of action.

According to Gaffney, “I’ve already sat down with about 40 to 50 people that represent the Downtown brick-and-mortar restaurants. We’ve discussed some of the disadvantages and advantages between the two groups and I feel that this is definitely something that we need to look at.

“This is what my concern is: We’ve got enough blighted buildings Downtown. The last thing we need is more restaurants to go out of business due to the lack of support that the city was giving them. And given what the city data has been saying, five years ago, we had 20,000 people Downtown at any given time. Now we have about half that … 

“As far as legislation goes, it’s a little early right now. I’m still in the process of meeting with some of my colleagues to discuss the situation. The next step is going to be to call a notice meeting so that we can really have an open discussion on how both groups are going to be able to live harmoniously within the space they’re given.”

Thus far, Gaffney and his colleagues are uncertain of what the answer to the problem is going to be. However, Gaffney did express interest in seeing what each side is willing to give up.

“This is going to have to be a give-and-take agreement between both groups,” said Gaffney.

Regardless of their discordant interests, both factions made it very clear that there is no “turf war” going on, that both sides have each other’s interest at heart as well as their own.

“Nobody is trying to eliminate anybody,” said Thornton. “I would like to see the food trucks prosper, I would like to see our restaurants prosper, but not at the expense of each other. We can’t decide to pack up and move like a food truck can when it rains and people decide to stay in their offices. We’re stuck here.

“I’m not trying to say that food trucks don’t have a place. Everybody in our organization believes that food trucks have a place here, but not at our expense. We don’t want the food trucks to be completely banished from Jacksonville. Really, what we want is to see the food trucks receive an equitable share of the 10 or so hours a week that we all have to make a living Downtown. A share that is fair to all.

“At the very least, local government needs to step in and give us a chance to recoup our investments. Even the smallest restaurants Downtown have sunk considerably more money into their enterprise than a food truck vendor.

“The city councilmen are ultimately going to be the ones who decide on what to do here,” said Thornton. “They’re going to have to choose which is more valuable to the Downtown area. And they may decide not to do anything. But I can promise you that if that happens, there are going to be a lot of empty stores and unhappy landlords, and I don’t know if that’s what Jacksonville wants.”

Brown, however, sees the food truck epidemic as the doctrine of good news and a saving grace for the increasingly derelict Downtown. According to Brown, the people who are requesting the food trucks are the same ones involved with the Downtown revitalization.

“We work with groups that are trying to revitalize Downtown, and they’re trying to get more options,” said Brown. “The more options that are Downtown, the more people it will bring to Downtown. And to my knowledge, that is the goal.”

Furthermore, Brown has made it clear that food trucks are in no way in a battle with the current restaurant establishments.

“We don’t search out places where we can cause trouble for somebody else–we don’t want that,” said Brown. “What we want is for an area we can call our own to fit into the legislation–which was already agreed upon three years ago–and city council passed it, and everybody signed off on it.

“As it stands right now, both sides made compromises and things could always be better for one or the other. But we’ve already agreed on the rules and what we could and couldn’t do. We gave up some of our demands just to work with people to get the original legislation passed. So as it stands now, things are as about as fair as they’re gonna be.”

“Everything is on the table now,” said Gaffney. “So we’re gonna have to see where we can go from here. But the plan here is in the next few months to get this problem resolved, but I’ve got to hear more discussions from both sides.

“No matter what everybody’s personal opinion on the matter is, I’m going to do what’s best for Downtown.”