Food truck program hits the brakes, for now

 

Aryana and Aidan Yousefkhanian work behind the counter at Simaron’s in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Several owners of prominent restaurants in downtown Dover were not happy to hear second-hand about the city’s interest in starting a Pilot Mobile Food Truck Program back in December.

So, with their financial and business concerns in mind, they called the Downtown Dover Partnership and scheduled a meeting with Assistant City Manager Kirby Hudson on Monday afternoon.

Mr. Hudson said he expected to receive some pushback after Dover City Council gave support to the City Manager’s Office to start the pilot food truck program during the Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee meeting at City Hall on Dec. 12.

Following Mr. Kirby’s discussion with the restaurateurs at the CenDel Foundation Community Building on Loockerman Street on Monday afternoon, the food truck pilot program was tabled at Monday night’s city council meeting so that more talks can take place.

“To be open, frank and honest about it I knew this sort of thing was going to happen,” Mr. Kirby said. “I knew just from listening from the folks where I was grabbing their best ideas and practices on where to have this food truck program, I knew there was going to be some pushback.

“Right now, I guess they’re still feeling some angst so there’s going to have to be some more discussion and we’ll see. I’m hoping it’s a go and that at some point we can move forward because I really do believe, and I’ve seen it, that (food trucks) draw a lot of those people out of their offices.”

Mr. Hudson said he sees more than 1,000 of those people every day who could be drawn out of their offices around Legislative Hall and into the mix downtown if food trucks were invited, which would create a buzz.

“This was to draw those people who never come out, bring them out the office,” he said. “The trick then comes, ‘How do you get them to see where you are (if you’re a downtown business)?’”

Dover’s plan was to have 10 food trucks located on Loockerman Street, fronting the Dover Public Library and City Hall area.

The city would allow food trucks to provide temporary food truck service from Monday through Friday, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The food vendors would provide food service from pre-designated parking spaces only, whose $400 per space rent each month would go to the city’s Parks and Recreation’s Department to help fund future programs and initiatives.

Restaurant owners cry foul

Most of the downtown restaurant owners at Monday’s meeting said they did not believe the city should gamble their businesses’ livelihood on such a program.

Owners from the Grey Fox Grille & Public House, the Golden Fleece Tavern, The Governor’s Café and 33 West Ale House and Grill, among others, were in attendance.

Perhaps most adamant in her opposition to the food truck program was Diana Welch, owner of both the Grey Fox Grille and Golden Fleece.

Mrs. Welch said the economic figures that restaurant owners in the downtown area deal with every day are something that cannot be toyed with.

“We are all independent owners and our food margin is between 10 and 15 percent if you do everything right, and all you need to do is carve into that little 10 percent and it spins (your budget off),” she said. “My light bill doesn’t change, whether I get 20 customers or 15, none of that changes. My mortgage, my electric, my gas … those are all the same and I have to pay them.

“So if you take two or three customers away from me a day and send them to a food truck that’s significant.”

Todd Stonesifer is a business owner and is on the board of the Downtown Dover Partnership. His wife, Kristin, is in the process of opening a coffee shop at 14 Loockerman Plaza.

“I’m scared to death of what the food trucks might do to our potential business, especially when we’re struggling just to get our doors open,” Mr. Stonesifer said, “but if the goal is to get people downtown then you can’t beat that goal.

“So, let’s not do anything hastily. Let’s all of us get together and bounce ideas off one another.”

Mr. Hudson and the restaurateurs scheduled another meeting to exchange dialogue for next Monday afternoon at 3 at 33 West Ale House and Grill on Loockerman Street.

Small, positive progress

Tina Bradbury, operations/program manager for Downtown Dover Partnership, was pleased to see the exchange take place between Mr. Hudson and the business owners, noting that it was small, yet positive, progress.

“I think that the collaboration is there now, it’s not just one side but it involves the others,” Ms. Bradbury said. “I think the main thing that caused the rift was that (the restaurant owners) weren’t informed and they didn’t have this dialogue.

“I think this was the start of a dialogue and the fact that they’re willing to sit down again is a step in the right direction.”

There were preliminary ideas on how sharing space with food trucks might be acceptable to the restaurant owners on Monday, but nothing was agreed upon.

The discussion got a little heated at times, but Mr. Hudson said it wasn’t something he wasn’t expecting.

“I did not take any of this personally because years ago I used to be a ‘Wings to Go’ owner so I know what it means that you put all of your eggs basically in a basket and that’s your livelihood,” he said. “I do get it.

“The thing right now is certainly I don’t want to bring anyone into this kind of environment because it should be homogenous. It should be everyone willing to work together.”

Work to be done

There is still lots of work remaining to be done and questions left to be answered if downtown restaurant owners are willing to accept a food truck program in Dover.

“If I’ve got some folks who in their mind have some legitimate issues that they don’t want a food truck, if this is going to happen, I want to work with them,” Mr. Hudson said. “I want to do my best to see if we can get the majority or everybody on the same page and not having somebody sitting around getting upset or with salt in their mouth.”

David Sophrin, policy analyst for the office of the mayor for the city of Wilmington, addressed some of the concerns that some members of the committee had in December, particularly questions that may be raised by owners of existing restaurants in downtown Dover.

“There’s a fair amount of research that’s already been done on this topic and we generally push back on the idea that this is a zero-sum game and any additional eatery that appears will be one less consumer for an existing restaurant,” Mr. Sophrin said.

“We think there’s a large number of people, at least in Wilmington, who don’t come out of those (downtown work) buildings so much.

“We believe that by getting them outside, particularly people who have typically worked there for 10 or 20 years, if they come out for lunch then they’ll see the existing restaurants and that increased exposure will be good for all.”

Brandon Pelton, owner of 33 West, was happy that Mr. Hudson at least took the time to address the restaurant owners in downtown Dover and find out how they believe the food truck program might affect them.

“It definitely alleviates some of the concerns,” Mr. Pelton said. “It was kind of a surprise to see (the proposed food truck program) in the paper when you invest a lot in downtown and don’t hear about it. It concerns you.”

As of now, food trucks remain in a holding pattern when it comes to downtown Dover.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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