SURF CITY — A fourth round of public arguments over the allowance of food trucks to operate within town limits — this time in the form of a special public hearing Monday night — resulted in a count of 17 people in favor of food trucks, with varying degrees of regulation, and four against.
Opening the hearing, Mayor Doug Medlin apologized to those in attendance for the town’s mishandling of a roadside peddler ordinance made in 1994, a law that has failed to clearly define rules and expectations for food trucks in Surf City.
The hearing ended with a motion directing Town Manager Ashely Loftis, in coordination with her staff and the town’s attorney, to draft two separate ordinances: one prohibiting food trucks and one regulating their operations in the town.
An adoption of one of these ordinances will take place at a town council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at the Surf City Community Center.
Behind the heated rhetoric during public meetings, calls for restaurant boycotts, and what numerous residents have called a growing division among the people of Surf City, there is a mix of business interests and personal beliefs fueling the debate.
Councilman Jeremy Shugarts, who along with a majority of the council has expressed support of a food truck ban, has suggested that “it’s okay to express your concerns: that’s what democracy’s about.”
Four arguments given Monday night reveal a snapshot of the nuanced spectrum of issues, what’s at stake, and how the upcoming decision will affect brick-and-mortar restaurants, drinking establishments, and individual residents and tourists.
Allow on private property: “Times have changed”
Resident Justin Poust, who claimed to be a loud voice on social media in recent weeks, supported the allowance of food trucks to operate on private property.
“I challenge everyone to stop whining, stop bickering, and encourage change and progression together,” Poust said.
He then presented his argument, outlined below:
- A ban will not work: “Times have changed, people have changed; customers want change.” A ban will push food trucks to nearby Hampstead, Wilmington, and Holly Ridge, attracting the same customer base and taking their business with them.
- Food trucks do not hurt brick-and-mortar restaurants, but instead increase traffic to the town and expand restaurants’ customer base. “If restaurants are struggling, it’s time to take a long look in the mirror; look at the quality and freshness [of your food] and step up your game.”
- Food trucks “serve a different purpose” than traditional, sit-down restaurants, providing a fast option for those on-the-go or those supporting another establishment. “If you’re having a few beers with friends, you’re not going to leave for another restaurant and come back.”
Salty Turtle addresses common criticisms
Salty Turtle Beer Company co-owner Dan Callender said the town initially told him that food trucks could not operate in the parking lot of his brewery. This past summer, after reviewing the current roadside peddler ordinance, “our legal counsel informed us there was actually no ban at all.”
Food trucks have since operated from his parking lot, setting off the current debate. Callender addressed common criticisms he has heard from local business owners and residents:
- Unsafe for public consumption: “Food trucks are subject to the same health standards as brick-and-mortar restaurants.”
- Sales Tax: “They pay normal sales tax like any other local business.”
- Impact Fees: Many restaurant owners, Callender said, have argued that food trucks do not pay the impact fees brick-and-mortar restaurants are forced to pay. “Food trucks are self-sustained; no city water or sewer resources are required.”
- Parking, traffic, safety issues: These can be addressed by “a common sense ordinance” similar to those adopted by other towns faced with the same problems.
- Restaurants invest heavily in kitchens while food trucks don’t: Callender compared the issue with the expensive brewery equipment he has purchased: “There’s nothing stopping someone from starting a craft beer bar next to us and undercutting us on price. We cannot ban that type of competition … All we can do is let the customers decide who gets their business.”
The art of compromise
“I request the council to honestly consider both sides and to realize the impact on the entire community, not just on brick-and-mortar restaurants,” resident Bob Soubroda said.
Why, he asked, did the restaurant alliance that has formed in recent weeks suddenly push for a total ban, when at first it seemed they were working on a compromise? He explained his stance accordingly:
- The art of compromise has suffered: Too often in today’s society all-or-nothing decisions are made with no give-or-take. “The art of compromise and negotiations does not exist as it has in the past; thus the divide in this great country.”
- An opportunity for the council: “The issue should be dealt with in a civil manner, with all parties at the table, and the council mediating for a fair, reasonable, and equitable resolution that could be a win for everyone involved — but most importantly a win for all residents and visitors of this town.”
The Pasquantonio brothers: Keep the town’s brand alive
Steve and Mike Pasquantonio, owners of Daddy Mac’s Beach Grille and part of the restaurant alliance pushing for a ban on food trucks, wanted to clear one thing up: it’s not about competition.
“All we’re looking for is a fair and even playing field,” Steve said. “There a lot of ordinances you have to follow as a restaurant.” One such ordinance required the brothers to purchase land for additional parking spaces to match the seating capacity in their restaurant.
But ultimately it was about maintaining the family-friendly atmosphere of Surf City, which they said the town established by drawing up its original roadside peddler ordinance in 1994.
Mike summarized the stance held by the restaurant alliance.
“People won’t go to this beach if there’s food trucks and peddlers everywhere, if it becomes a carnival-like atmosphere,” he said.” I just want to maintain that spirit — this is what draws people to this community. We can be like a Wilmington — they have food trucks — we can be like all the other communities that have peddlers on the side of the road, because it’s easier to buy and there’s cheaper bargains.”
Speaking of the town’s “brand,” he concluded, “But we have a brand, something that makes us special. This is why people come here. And we need to maintain that … The easier thing to do is just let everybody in, and I want to warn you, if you let some in you’re gonna let them all in. They have lawyers in Raleigh, they have a food truck alliance. And there is no level of regulations [to keep them satisfied] — it’s gotta be all or nothing.”
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com