A downtown food fight

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August 15, 2013
By: Gabrielle Martinson
Photo by Gabrielle Martinson
Gabrielle Martinson
Skyway and brick-and-mortar restaurants downtown are looking for a solution as they say food trucks are cause for a severe drop in business during the summer

It’s 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and while three people eat sandwiches inside Cousin’s Deli in the Baker Center on Marquette Avenue, the line at Bloomy’s Roast Beef food truck outside is 10 people deep.

Crowded food trucks have become a daily occurrence on Marquette Avenue, where the average lunchtime customer can expect to wait up to 20 minutes for a slice of street cuisine.

“It’s worth it,” said Diana Ky while eating lunch from Lulu’s Street Food. “[The food trucks are] only here when it’s warm; you can go to the skyway restaurants or any other place any time.”

But while food truck business booms, skyway and bricks-and mortar restaurants in the area have seen a dramatic drop in business, enough that four restaurants closed their doors recently.

“Even before the food trucks, summer is a slow time for us here. People like to go out, so naturally it’s a slow time,” said Goly Baniani, manager at Cousin’s Deli skyway restaurant. “But now it’s worse.”

After several summers of loosing business over the competition, skyway and brick-and-mortar restaurants are looking for a solution.

Doug Sams, president of the Downtown Restaurant Association and owner of skyway deli D. Brian’s, is pushing for an ordinance change that would force food trucks to spread out across Minneapolis and limit the amount of food trucks per block, eliminating the line of 14 to 20 food trucks on Marquette Avenue every day.

“There’s 190,000 people downtown, that’s plenty of consumers for the food trucks,” Sams said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to concentrate on a one or two block stretch and overwhelm those nearby businesses, causing permanent damage and job loss.”

However, the Minnesota Food Truck Association isn’t as quick to agree to such an ordinance. John Levy, president of the association, said that while he thinks having food trucks spread out throughout downtown Minneapolis is a good idea, restricting the number of trucks per area is not.

“What the skyway restaurants really want is to have less competition for their business, and that’s fine, but there should not be protective regulations for their sake, or for anyone else’s for that matter,” Levy said.

Despite discussions about change, Levy said the clear popularity of food trucks could mean that spreading the trucks across the downtown area would only lead to more skyway and street-level businesses being hurt on a wider level.

“Whether it’s three food trucks downstairs or six food trucks downstairs, I suspect that people are still going to eat where they want to eat,” Levy said. “If the food trucks are offering a better fare than the skyway restaurants, then I think (skyway restaurants) are going to lose out anyway.”

Fingers are being pointed at food trucks even more intensely after Peter’s Grill, Taco Bell, Taco John’s and German Hotdog all recently closed around Marquette Avenue. However, food truck supporters argue the drop in business at skyway restaurants is not necessarily a clear cause-and-effect relationship.

“If you were to go into Yelp and see some of the comments of the things that were going on with Peter’s Grill for example, you would find a very believable alternative explanation for why they went out of business,” Levy said.

Saeed Masroujeh, manager of the Falafel King food truck, believes the issue comes down to one thing: food.

“You can come out here and get a taco for $7 that’s actually going to taste good, versus going to Taco John’s,” Masroujeh said. “I mean, it’s all about the quality of the food and how we serve our customers, and we serve our food as best as possible.”

With the number of food trucks downtown increasing, competition is becoming heated between the trucks as well. As several falafel trucks fight for a spot on Marquette every day, Masroujeh said he wouldn’t be opposed to having food trucks spread out around downtown Minneapolis.

“You’ve got three trucks 200, 300 feet from each other selling the same food. That would actually be something we’d rather have regulated; to only have certain trucks on certain blocks,” Masroujeh said. “But we’d be fine anywhere … as long as we get the location that we want.”

Levy said there is still a lot of compromise to be done before the two groups take any kind of a proposal to city hall.

City Council Member Lisa Goodman said she supports the current ordinance for food trucks, but would be open to exploring changes if both sides could come to an agreement. Mayor R.T. Rybak stated he was in favor of spreading food trucks out, and limiting the number of food trucks to around three per block.

“Food trucks, I think, have brought a very necessary new flavor to downtown food,” Rybak said. “Building owners, however, should also learn that people aren’t going to these just because they want to eat food standing on a corner out of a truck. They’re attracted by innovation, by more diversity, fewer chain operations.”

Rybak said he would like to see food trucks eventually become brick-and-mortar restaurants, and many food truck owners say they have the same goals for their future.

“To me the long-term solution isn’t to have our streets filled with trucks,” Rybak said. “It’s to have our buildings filled with cool restaurants that people love to go to.”