Will Savannah jump on the food truck bandwagon?

I’m sure I made some people mad with my column this morning in the SMN: Savannah suffers food-truck envy. On Facebook and in private conversations, I’ve been hearing again and again about how exciting food trucks would be in Savannah — how much the tourists would love them, how great the food would be, how they’d bring more people downtown, etc., etc.

But I simply don’t think there’s adequate demand to support any sort of major push.

I agree completely with this comment from Gallery Espresso owner Judy Davis from another recent SMN article:

“In terms of foot traffic, Savannah isn’t there yet,” said Judy Davis, owner of The Gallery Espresso downtown. “The risk is a food cart or truck taking enough business away where the existing business is endangered while at the same time the cart isn’t making enough money to survive either. You can end up losing two businesses.”

From my column today on the this issue of demand:

I recently wrote about the eight vacant commercial spots with full commercial kitchens on Broughton and Congress streets. With the recent closure of La Vostra Cucina, make that nine.

Given those trends, it’s no surprise that recently released data shows direct spending by visitors is still below its pre-recession peak.

Plus, we know that the office vacancy rate downtown has increased in recent years.

And we know that the downtown residential population decreased between 2000 and 2010.

Visitors spending less money, fewer downtown workers, fewer downtown residents — who exactly is going to eat at all these food trucks?

This issue of demand is a key one for the entire economy, not just here in Savannah. I’ve written about this before.

If there’s inadequate demand right now, then food trucks would have to either take business from existing restaurants or create fresh demand. There would certainly be an early surge of curious folks who would venture out in the early days to check out a new food truck or two. But some of them would be regulars at other downtown spots, which would suffer, and then the newness would begin to wear off.

Over time — a period of years — food trucks would probably be good for downtown, perhaps adding in some small part to the vibrancy of downtown as it recaptures (I hope) some of the residential density that it historically had.

But in the short run, they’d almost certainly take money from existing businesses, many of which are already struggling enough.

All that said, I’m willing to go with some sort of change to existing ordinances. From the column today:

Maybe there’s a way for a food truck to thrive with a weekly route that includes stops in front of hospitals and other large employers. Maybe there’s a way to give food trucks routine access to areas of steadier demand, such as River Street and Tybee’s south end during the summer.

Maybe we could license a limited number of trucks and see how things go.

But before we spend too much time on this or get our hopes up too high, let’s consider more policies to support existing businesses that would like to boost street life. We could begin by making it easier for them to make use of the sidewalks and tree lawns that building owners are expected to maintain anyway.

The same issues of controversy — health, parking, aesthetics, unfair competition — that have been raised here have come up in other cities. If we move ahead with food trucks, we don’t need to start from scratch.

Here’s a great piece about issues in Nashville. It reads in part:

For now, a vendor cannot get a permit to block a portion of a street or parking space to conduct such activity, said Metro Public works spokeswoman Gwen Hopkins-Glascock.

The department is working with the city’s legal department on clarifications that would apply to food vending trucks.

“The issue right now is there is nothing saying it’s illegal, either,” said Chip Knauf, a traffic engineer with Metro Public Works.

“As long as they have their license and are paying for the meter. As it stands in their eyes, they are not breaking the law, and everyone is reviewing this process.”

Public Works has received concerns from brick-and-mortar restaurant owners about some food trucks in direct competition setting up shop in front of their businesses.

And this from the same piece:

While the food truck phenomenon is new to Nashville, cities throughout the country have been dealing with similar issues for years. In Portland, Ore., a high percentage of food truck operators lease spaces in parking lots all over the city and stay permanently at those locations.

The trend has really taken off in Austin, Texas, which boasts 1,350 mobile food permits, up from 648 in 2006. While the mobile trucks in Austin are prohibited from selling on city streets, they have designated zones similar to outdoor food courts where they can operate.

An AJC piece from July 20th: Food trucks likely here to stay:

While many food trucks advertise daily locations on their websites, there’s an emerging trend in Atlanta to create food truck “pods” or gatherings of multiple mobile kitchens. You can find food trucks in Midtown on Mondays and Thursdays, at the Woodruff Arts Center and Atlantic Station on Fridays, and at the Buckhead Theatre on Thursday evenings.

Jenny Levison of Souper Jenny restaurant in Buckhead loads up her brightly colored “Incredible Flying Soupmobile” with soups, salads and sandwiches and takes her show on the road to food truck events. “It’s entertaining, and you can get all kinds of people to sample lots of food in one place.”

Not surprisingly, the Technomic survey found that location is vital to the success of food trucks, as more than half of consumers “just happen upon them.” Facebook and Twitter are key ingredients for marketing these mobile restaurants because 84 percent of heavy social media users visit food trucks once a week. “I think it’s really cool,” Smith said. “It brings people out and really taps into the power of community in Atlanta.”

It’s worth noting that there are only about 10 licensed food trucks in Atlanta right now.

Charleston now has a sort of mobile food court that is set up on a privately owned lot. Check out the video at the Charleston Post & Courier. (I can’t seem to embed it.)

In L.A., there’s a website devoted to finding food trucks that aggregates dozens of Twitter feeds.

Some of the controversy regarding one truck in New London, Connecticut sounds a lot like recent debates here in Savannah.

And here’s how Asheville is approaching a new ordinance, according to this piece in the Citizen-Times:

The change, which faces opposition from some restaurateurs and others, would allow up to 10 trucks downtown that could operate as late as 3 a.m. if they are not near homes. Trucks could only set up on private lots and cannot roam or use public parking spots.