SURF CITY — A group of restaurant owners met Monday morning and agreed to contest the city’s recently debated roadside peddler ordinance by calling for a ban on food trucks operating within city limits. It’s a move supported by several restauranteurs — but not all of the town’s business owners are in agreement.
According to Surf City BBQ owner Guy Royal, the group’s decision was made in preparation of Wednesday evening’s town council meeting, marking an escalation of restaurant owners’ previous appeals to the city to only increase regulations for food trucks. It is worth noting that Wednesday meeting’s agenda does not include a public motion to discuss or vote on the food truck issue.
If an outright ban doesn’t succeed, Royal said the restaurant alliance will push for heightened — and more clearly defined — rules and restrictions, including stricter parking allowances, zoning laws limiting where food trucks can operate, city licensing requirements, compliance of Pender County health inspections and licenses, and the guarantee that food trucks pay Pender County taxes.
The group is currently drawing up a draft ordinance outlining such restrictions, including a separation requirement that “food trucks must locate at least two-hundred feet from any fixed-based food service establishment with an operating kitchen” or any hotel or similar establishment providing accommodation.
However, according to Royal, after Monday’s meeting, a consensus was reached to push the town for a ban instead of increased regulations.
“We’ve done our research,” Royal said. “There are lots of towns that have bans. It’s the safest bet for the town, for local businesses … They’re peddlers. Once you open up their doors, all sorts of roadside vendors will come in. It’s better to play it safe.”
Not all business owners agree
Salty Turtle Beer Company owner Dan Callender, on the other hand, believes the call for an outright ban on food trucks is overly divisive.
“Instead of coming together as one [after Hurricane Florence], we’re pulling ourselves apart, bickering over small issues like food trucks,” Callender said. “We’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure they are here for everyone. At the end of the day, it’s [your] private property, and limiting a business to operate on your property is absurd.”
According to local business owner Laura Staton, Salty Turtle has been allowed to host food trucks since August of this year due to an attorney-led challenge of the town’s interpretation of the roadside peddler ordinance.
Staton owns Swingbridge Cork and Brew, a beer and wine shop on Topsail Island where customers can stay for a drink; she said she didn’t invest in a kitchen when she purchased the business in early 2018.
“I was banking on the thought that I could have food trucks,” Staton said, but the town forced her to cancel a scheduled food truck appearance outside her establishment shortly after she bought the business.
“I feel that I’m fighting a losing battle,” Staton said. “The town is talking like they are going to ban them. From what we’ve been told by one town official, there have been no lawsuits against outright bans on food trucks in North Carolina. So they feel confident they can do that here.”
Further south on the coast, Carolina Beach continues to debate a recent lawsuit filed by food trucks and the subsequent lifting of a food truck ban, but Staton believes that it won’t hold up much longer.
“I think restaurant owners need to understand that they are not the only business in town, and they need to work with us on trying to get an ordinance that would make sense. But instead, they are all banding together against food trucks,” Stanton said.
Complaints against food trucks
For Royal and the other restaurant owners arguing for a ban, brick-and-mortar restaurants are more capable of maintaining necessary health inspection standards. Food trucks, he claimed, face challenges because they are more exposed to the elements — in the springtime, for instance, Royal claimed that pollen threatens the sanitary conditions of open-aired kitchens.
He also argued that parking and traffic problems in Surf City are already on the rise, and the presence of food trucks would exacerbate the problem.
Ultimately, though, Royal said that a ban will help further differentiate Surf City from other coastal towns like Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach.
“We’re a small, quaint town and would rather keep it that way. We’re family-oriented here, and in the long run this ban will keep that nostalgic feeling in a town that attracts people as far away as Connecticut and Ohio,” Royal said.
Callender disagreed with the notion. His brewery is the only one operating within Pender County, and to him, it is enhancing the appeal of Surf City for visitors and full-time residents alike; food trucks, he said, help increase the attractiveness of his business and help diversify food options for the entire town.
But like Stanton, he believes the town and the restaurant alliance will continue to push for an outright ban, “suppressing local businesses to operate.” If the ban is accomplished, Callender said he will look to areas like Hampstead when considering future expansion of their operations.
“Why would you want to limit a business that is really thriving and helping put the town on the map?” Callender said. “But at the end of the day, they’re set in their ways; they’ve made up their minds.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com