The Akron area has a thriving food truck culture; unfortunately, it’s just not in Akron.
Fairlawn, Bath, Copley, Norton, Wadsworth, Coventry — pick a neighboring community and you’re likely to see those colorful gourmet wagons parked there, dishing up their daily specials.
Not so in Akron, where an old city law prohibits their operation and city officials have refused to welcome them.
In August 2010 I wrote my first story about how the gourmet food truck trend had arrived in the area. We’ve missed a lot of good eating in the last three years.
But food truck operators recently have begun to ramp up their campaign to persuade Akron to let them in.
They have started a social media campaign with a Facebook page, “Please allow food trucks in Akron,” and an online petition at www.change.org, as part of their lobbying effort. More importantly, truck operators have begun to attend Akron City Council meetings to plead their case.
At last week’s meeting, five of them spoke before council asking for a change in Akron law, and even gave council some proposed guidelines that could be used for food truck legislation.
Council President Garry Moneypenny said after the meeting that the group had raised some good points and he would make sure that the entire council saw the proposed legislation.
Jeff Winer, who along with Steve Sabo owns the Orange Trük, has been a leader in the effort, and said operators intend to be back at every council meeting until they see some action. It doesn’t seem like it should take such a grand effort to sell sushi, chicken tacos and jambalaya on the street corner, particularly since the city already allows hot dog cart vendors in downtown. But truck operators have a battle on their hands.
First, there is the city law that prohibits itinerant retailers from “selling any item of value from a vehicle” in Akron.
I suspect this law must date back to the “Psst, hey buddy, wanna buy a watch” days in Akron, but it is being used to prevent the trucks from parking on city streets, particularly downtown, where they want to be.
Second, the Downtown Akron Partnership and Mayor Don Plusquellic’s office, which admittedly is following the DAP’s lead on this topic, have maintained a staunch position against allowing the trucks.
Both maintain that the trucks provide unfair competition to permanent restaurants in the city, particularly those downtown, who have made an investment to be there, pay taxes and already struggle with a limited pool of customers and a wide variety of restaurants.
At Monday’s council meeting, Winer and Sabo met with opposition from the DAP and operators of two downtown eateries, Insomnia Cookies and Street Treats Grill. The DAP’s Suzie Graham told council about the drawbacks for brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“They can’t and won’t drive away when times get tough,” she said.
Winer balks at this argument as blatant “protectionism.”
“I feel bad if a restaurant isn’t doing well, but how is that my fault? What about the restaurants that are doing well, are they to blame for the restaurants who aren’t?” he said.
If truck operators can find private property on which to park, they will come to Akron. Winer and Sabo have found a roundabout way into the city — they signed up to be a vendor at the Countryside Conservancy’s Highland Square Farmers Market, so they can park there every Thursday during market season to sell.
Trucks also are in talks with the University of Akron about some permanent spots on campus in the upcoming school year, and even potentially accepting the university dining plan’s Zip Card.
Until now, the city’s response has been to invite trucks to provide food at special events, like concerts at Lock 3 or other festival-type occasions.
Plusquellic recently released a written statement through his spokeswoman, Stephanie York, saying he was asking his law department for a fresh review of Akron’s law banning food trucks, and laws from other cities where food trucks operate.
“The concerns I have is the fairness issue of people who come in and don’t pay property taxes, which go to help support the schools, and the fact that they may not be involved in any other way in our community. The point is, small businesses, like our downtown restaurants, give back to the community in various ways. If we can figure out a way to apply a fairness doctrine to these activities, we may want to make changes. I revisit a lot of issues over time, and that is what I intend to do on this issue,” the mayor’s statement read.
York said if food truck operators want to sit down to talk about the issue, the mayor’s office would be willing to meet with them.
These are positive signs, particularly since Winer said he already has sent the mayor’s office emails, called several times and personally asked York to set up a meeting, all to no avail. (Coincidentally, York and Winer are cousins.)
No one understands better than I do how difficult it is to succeed in the restaurant business. I have a front row seat to their struggles. But I also know that competition is the American way and restaurant operators know that before they ever unlock their front doors.
Isn’t every restaurant competition for every other restaurant? By that logic, aren’t all restaurants really just competition for grocery stores? Where does it end?
It’s funny that the very law that prevents itinerant retailers in Akron makes an exception for ice cream trucks. Don’t they pose competition to bricks-and-mortar ice cream parlors? Of course they do, and yet I’ve never heard of one ice cream parlor lobbying against the Good Humor man, or the city going out of its way to protect them.
I would argue that food trucks are less competition because by the very nature of their business, they are transient. They don’t want to be in the same place all the time. They are constantly looking for a fresh audience for their menus. Their mobility is a part of their cachet.
But more importantly, I would argue that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Food trucks are today’s trend and Akron can continue to engage in stodgy, backward thinking by not embracing them, or help to raise the coolness factor of downtown in ways that can only help all of the businesses that have a permanent home there.