If Chapel Hill were a restaurant, it would be dawdling in the kitchen while diners impatiently waited for their meals.

After 11 months of deliberation, town officials still may not decide on legalization of food trucks until an Oct. 17 public hearing, at the earliest.

Parlez-Vous Crepe owner Jody Argote serves up some fare at Johnnys in Carrboro, where food trucks have been allowed for three years.
  • File photo by Jeremy Lange
  • Parlez-Vous Crepe owner Jody Argote serves up some fare at Johnny’s in Carrboro, where food trucks have been allowed for three years.

Trucks flourish in neighboring Durham and Carrboro, but they are less welcome in Chapel Hill, where mobile vendors can operate only if they have special-event permits or if they park on private property with approval from the town planning board.

On Monday, 20 food truck vendors, citizens and politicians attended an informational session during which Chapel Hill Principal Planner Kendal Brown rolled out proposed regulations to govern the eateries on wheels.

Among the key stipulations:
-Trucks would be allowed only on paved, private, commercially zoned parking lots that have at least 10 designated spaces; vendors must have the landowner’s permission.
-Trucks could operate only when the business that regularly uses the lot is closed, and they must be parked 200 feet from the customer entrance of any restaurant.
-In addition, in some districts outside downtown, there could be only one vendor per 100 parking spaces or per acre, with a maximum of two vendors per lot.

Some food truck vendors were displeased with the draft regulations.

“I think 200 feet is very restrictive, and telling owners what to do with their lots is interesting,” said Carol Edenton of Will & Pop’s, a food truck that serves grilled cheese, cheese steak and nachos. “The 200 feet, 10-space rules, it’s up to the owner of the lot where they want it.”

“Malleable” was the buzzword as Brown stated repeatedly that the numbers are arbitrary, and derived from conversations with Town Council members, the Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce. She asked food truck vendors for help in crafting the rules.

However, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward, who sat in the audience at the meeting, both said they wouldn’t support food trucks unless they receive assurance that taxes collected from their sales in Chapel Hill stay in Orange County.

Food truck vendors pledged to keep those tax dollars to Orange County. They say they track all sales and will, as most have vendors have already done, pay sales tax in the county in which the sale is made.
Some vendors pay sales tax in the city where their commissary—a place to do prep work and other food-related work—is located. Orange County has such a place, a culinary incubator.

Ward says that while neighboring communities have a thriving food truck scene, the business model needs to be tailored to Chapel Hill’s needs. “It shows it’s successful not just in the far West Coast, but it’s successful in our own backyard,” he said.

Though the council has expressed interest in encouraging entrepreneurship and diverse food options, it still has concerns about fairness, enforcement and competition with established restaurants.
The vendors pointed out that food trucks have not damaged the restaurant business in Durham.
“I wish the restaurant owners would go to Durham and see what food trucks do,” Edenton said. “It’s not a bad thing for restaurants.”

Added Jody Argote, owner of Parlez-Vous Crepe, “It was a symbiotic relationship with Johnny’s,” she said of the Carrboro coffee, dairy, baked goods, wine and beer shop where she used to park her truck. “People buy coffee and milk from him, and my crepes.”

Johnny’s closed in June, not because of food trucks; owner Brian Plaster opted to focus on a similar venture in Pittsboro, the Frosty Trading Post. The Carrboro watering hole plans to reopen under a different name.

Food truck regulations are scheduled to be on the agenda at the Sept. 20 Chapel Hill Planning Board meeting.