WTF: What the Food Truck?!

Why food trucks are not popping up all over Akron like they have every else

by Greg Milo

“Five Cubans all day!” Megan shouted to our cook, as she raced to prepare the orders. The line at the window snaked as far as I could see, but my attention was on the guy in front of me ordering another three Cuban sandwiches. I realized after I took the order that I forgot to write the dude’s name on the order sheet, which was going to make it awkward when I started calling for the guy with the red shirt.

“Red shirt! Your order’s up!”

Five people in red shirts turned to look.

Last summer, I worked on the Beachcomber food truck. As the vegan-on-board, I mainly played cashier, doing little to aid in the flipping of beef on the steaming grill. I was the novice, though I was pretty awesome at dropping fries into the deep fryer.

There’s not much glamour in working a food truck. It’s greasy and sweaty and can be outright exhausting when it’s booming. At the same time, it’s exhilarating—not just for those racing inside the cramped quarters of the truck, but also for the customers who are enjoying something different. We set up mainly at special events or at a business that had requested we stop by during their lunch break.

Food Truck Fridays, in the parking lot of Child Guidance and Family Solutions, are a melding of the two—something of an event itself set up on private property—and a great example of food trucks in action.

“It’s been great,” says Tiffany Jamison, who helps organize the event. “It’s brought awareness to Child Guidance and what we do.”

A fundraiser for Child Guidance, Jamison says Food Truck Fridays attract 400 to 600 people each week, and with about 20 trucks rotating in and out during the summer, customers are treated to a variety.

For food truck fans, events like Food Truck Fridays are a work-around because the city of Akron isn’t exactly food truck friendly. While privately-owned businesses can allow trucks on their property during lunch hours, using public space can be a challenge for food truck owners.

“The license fee is upwards of $2000 to operate on the city streets deemed appropriate (by the city),” says Judy Neel of the Stone Pelican Rolling Cafe food truck. “And none of them have high foot traffic.”

In Cleveland, the fee is a little over $400.

But it’s not just cost-prohibitive in Akron. The city ordinance restricts food trucks from operating within 50 feet of a residence, 1000 feet of a school or 200 feet of a permanent food service (aka – a restaurant).

Former Akron Deputy Mayor David Lieberth, who was involved in the food truck debate when it first began, tried to shed light on the thinking behind the ordinance.

“Where do the trucks park on Main Street? What time do we allow them to block the street? How many spaces do we block off? Who pays for the lost revenue of the meters?” Lieberth asks, recalling some of the questions the city faces regarding food trucks.

Not to mention, Lieberth says, restaurants like The Lockview have made “significant investments” to their permanent locations, on which they pay property taxes, unlike food trucks. Their investment is measured in time, too. Restaurants often open early and stay open late five, six and seven days a week but food trucks swoop in for prime lunch hours.

“Food trucks would skim the cream off the top of the profit,” Lieberth says.

Neel disagrees. “We don’t compete with restaurants. We have no air conditioning. We have no restrooms. When we’re out, we’re out, and we leave. Thinking we’re competition is absurd.”

You have to wonder how many of the 400 to 600 people at Food Truck Fridays are leaving downtown altogether at lunch and how many, had the food trucks been on Main Street instead, would have wandered out of a long food truck line and into a restaurant.

What of the summer festivals that shut down Main Street, setting up rows of out-of-town vendors with their backs to locals like Baxter’s and The Lockview? Are downtown restaurants busier or emptier because of the crowds drawn to events like the Rib, White & Blue Festival? Does it hurt or help the eateries further away from Lock 3 and what would the impact be if food trucks had a regular day—say, a Monday—when they could set up for lunch?

This debate is happening all across the nation. Regardless, city restrictions certainly won’t change this season. Perhaps the next mayor will jumpstart the conversation, leading to some new ideas. Until then, food truck foodies will keep getting their fix at Food Truck Fridays and other nearby round-ups and festivals.

But what about me? Where’s my vegan food truck?