Food truck plan for downtown Dover runs out of gas

DOVER — Kirby Hudson viewed having food trucks lined up in front of the Dover Public Library and City Hall as sort of a daily festival that would lure some of the 1,100 workers out of their offices around the Legislative Mall area.

Mr. Hudson, the city’s assistant city manager, wanted to create a buzz by offering up different tastes, with aromas wafting from 10 food trucks, having upbeat music playing and people enjoying their lunch breaks outside.

However, any potential buzz of a Pilot Food Truck Program was squashed on Friday when City Manager Donna Mitchell sent an email to Mayor Robin R. Christiansen and City Council members saying the food truck program had been pulled.

Mr. Hudson said that Mrs. Mitchell elected to halt the creation of the food truck program after seeing an abundance of negative comments to it via social media and its possible negative impact to existing downtown restaurants.

“The bottom line is with all the good we thought this was going to do – I still stand behind it – we’d have close to 1,100 people not getting out of their buildings right now getting a chance to have lunch outside,” Mr. Hudson said. “Not everybody gets an hour for lunch, so with a half-hour they could walk to the food trucks and eat.

“The next thing you know you have all these folks coming out and getting outside of their buildings and now you have an opportunity to see what’s in the downtown area.”

While Mr. Hudson’s intentions appear to be good for downtown Dover, local restaurateurs were hesitant to gamble with their businesses in the name of bringing food trucks in.

Todd Stonesifer, a downtown business owner who is on the board of the Downtown Dover Partnership, said he thought more research was needed to be conducted before the city launched its food truck program, which it originally had targeted to begin in mid-January.

“I don’t know why they decided not to move forward,” Mr. Stonesifer said, of the city. “I can’t say that I’m disappointed. Right now, if it’s not broke don’t fix it.”

Mr. Hudson’s idea was to have food truck vendors provide food service from pre-designated parking spaces, 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.

No common ground

Restaurant 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, met with Mr. Kirby at the CenDel Foundation Community Building on Loockerman Street on Jan. 8.

Many were concerned that they found out second-hand about the proposed food truck program and were not made aware of it by city officials before moving it forward.

The food truck plan received support during the Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee meeting at City Hall on Dec. 12; however, it was tabled by city council on Jan. 8, following the meeting between Mr. Hudson and the business owners.

The Jan. 8 meeting with Mr. Hudson and the restaurateurs got heated on a couple of occasions as the business owners pointed out the food truck owners do not have a vested interest in downtown Dover.

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.”

After discussion about potentially having the food trucks come once a week on Wednesdays at the Capital City Farmers Market at Loockerman Plaza and other ideas, plans were made to meet again on Monday.

That meeting never took place as the food truck program was nixed by Mrs. Mitchell last Friday.

What could have been …

Mr. Hudson is still confident there is plenty of room for both food trucks and downtown restaurants to both experience success in Dover.

He said they cater to different crowds – food trucks for those who want a quick bite to eat and the restaurants, which attract a crowd that has more time to sit down for lunch.

“I thought we did a very good job in explaining what we were trying to do but it was falling on deaf ears,” said Mr. Hudson. “No matter what I said they didn’t want to hear it. They had it in their minds that a food truck program would take their customers away and harm them financially.

“Unfortunately, at this time, it’s not going to happen … and I don’t see it happening anytime in the future.”

Mr. Stonesifer and his wife, Kristin, are in the process of opening a coffee shop at 14 Loockerman Plaza, just across the street from City Hall.

He admitted he was scared to death about what having food trucks in front of his location would mean to his future business.

“My opinion is that we should be considerate of ideas and that we should examine this idea to see where the pros and cons might lie,” Mr. Stonesifer said. “I wasn’t completely opposed to it, I just thought it needed some more consideration and needed to be vetted on both sides.”

Personally, he said he wasn’t sure if the food truck program itself would work out for the city in the first place.

Mr. Stonesifer, one of the founding members of Destination Downtown Dover, saw his organization attract an estimated 6,000 people for its’ Octoberfest last fall and had six food trucks on-site.

“I find it hard to understand and comprehend how bringing in 10 food trucks every day is going to be mutually beneficial to food trucks and to the people they’re trying to attract,” said Mr. Stonesifer. “How are they going to sustain 10 food trucks every day? The math just doesn’t work.”

Mr. Hudson said it might have been worth it just to give it a try.

“When you’re trying to introduce something that might be a benefit to someone and it’s falling on deaf ears, why continue to fight?,” he said. “I find the logical and best thing is to just fold it up.”

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

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