On Saturday afternoon, a small line of curious shoppers waited to enter Gypsy Jule’s bohemian-style camper. A few feet away, Go Girl Shoppe’s eye-catching floral-painted 1976 Shasta drew customers inside.
The decorated camper stood out among the dozens of vendors in white tents lining Fayetteville Street as part of the Wide Open Bluegrass Street Festival. The festival, though, is one of the few times the city allows mobile retailers to set up shop.
As the surging online marketplace devours conventional retailers, businesses have begun thinking outside of the brick-and-mortar box to launch and grow their brands, piggy-backing off of the success of food trucks. Proponents say these versatile shops on wheels could increase vibrancy and downtown foot traffic, and maybe even be the next local startup trend—if, that is, the city council can figure out what to do with them.
On September 18, the council voted not to move forward with an ordinance that would have effectively legalized mobile retail in Raleigh, though Mayor Nancy McFarlane planned to bring the proposal back at Tuesday’s council meeting.
Right now, the city only permits mobile businesses that sell food, produce, and flowers. Mobile retailers are allowed to operate only on an ad hoc basis for one-day events and festivals or with a temporary use permit for up to twenty days—for, say, a fireworks pop-up shop—according to assistant planning director Travis Crane. They’re not allowed on an ongoing basis.
“The way it’s set up right now, it’s basically impossible to do mobile retail,” says House of Swank owner Johnny Pugh, who purchased a truck to start a mobile operation but never got it rolling, in part due to the city’s restrictions. “Raleigh is way behind the curve. New Orleans, Dallas, Cleveland, basically every major metro area does allow mobile retail in some way or another.”
That hasn’t stopped some entrepreneurs from hitting the road. Go Girl Shoppe owner Meghan Wagner has been taking her mobile store to festivals and special events throughout the Triangle since 2012.
“With rent prices going sky-high but people buying less from you because they can go on Amazon, people are thinking outside the box,” Wagner says. “By starting out this way, you are able to brand yourself and get a larger following that will eventually lead to someone having their own store.”
Despite the restrictions, mobile retailers have existed in Raleigh through symbiotic relationships with other businesses, often setting up in their parking lots. This is how former mobile retailer Pitch & Primer got its start, parking outside Trophy Brewing, Runologie, and State of Beer—a mutually beneficial arrangement, says Trophy co-owner David Meeker.
But trying to circumvent the city’s ban didn’t always work, says Pitch & Primer owner Jared Childs. He was ticketed for setting up his 1970s Airstream outside of HQ Raleigh. So, two years ago, he pitched an ordinance that would allow mobile retailers to operate more freely, and he worked with former council member Mary-Ann Baldwin to bring it forward.
The council’s Economic Development and Innovation Committee discussed the proposal in April, May, and November 2017 before the council directed its staff to draft the ordinance that December. Ten months later, the draft finally landed on the current council’s agenda.
The proposal would fold mobile retailers into the city’s unified development ordinance, limiting sales to clothing and grooming products and prohibiting the sale of alcohol, tobacco products, “adult-related products,” and firearms and explosives. In addition, the retailers would need to be located within a parking lot and would only be able to operate for four hours at a time with the permission of the property owner for no more than two consecutive days at a time, no more than ten times a year.
It wasn’t the most permissive strategy, but it was a start, supporters say. But even that seemed a bridge too far for some council members. At the September 18 meeting, Kay Crowder asked to remove the ordinance from a list of text changes being referred to the city’s planning commission, noting that she’d been unable to get in touch with Pitch & Primer, the business requesting the change.
There’s a good reason for that: Pitch & Primer closed this spring. In the nearly two years since he proposed the ordinance, Childs says he’d lost track of where the ordinance stood, and the meetings kept getting delayed.
“They couldn’t take action and make a decision that seems pretty simple to me,” Childs says.
After Crowder’s request, council member Russ Stephenson said he didn’t see “the same level of interest” in mobile retail as food trucks and, with no other discussion, the council unanimously voted the ordinance off of the docket. No one was there to speak up for mobile retail because no one had any idea the council was addressing it. The item was buried on the agenda within a list of other proposed text changes.
The rejection was a shock to Jennifer Martin, executive director of Shop Local Raleigh. She, too, had been caught unaware that the proposal was coming up for discussion, even though she’d been following along intently. More surprising, Martin says, was that no one aside from Crowder attempted to reach any of the businesses involved.
“I think we’re really stifling the entrepreneurial spirit when we make decisions like this, and we haphazardly come to a conclusion without really vetting it,” Martin says. “I didn’t see the negative. Why would we not look at this to help our small businesses and growth and tax revenue and providing jobs?”
For David Meeker—the son of former mayor Charles Meeker—this move is just the latest example of the city council’s reticence toward innovation.
“I feel like the council ran as a progressive group,” Meeker says. “They’ve been the opposite, and they’ve been incredibly conservative on all types of issues—ADUs to this, you can go down the list. I feel like Raleigh is a progressive city that wants to move forward, and they don’t represent us right now.”
The day after the vote, McFarlane stopped by House of Swank and met with Pugh. A few hours later, McFarlane tweeted that, “with renewed interest and support, I will bring the item back to council for discussion.”
The ordinance wasn’t included on the agenda for Tuesday, though it could be brought up during the meeting. If that happens, it might get a more receptive audience. Council member Nicole Stewart says she was “caught off guard” at the last meeting, but after learning more about mobile retail, she’s open to considering it.
“I’m interested in any economic opportunities that make it easier for folks to enter the market, and there are regulations that we need to add in or reconsider to do that,” Stewart says. “I think mobile retail is one of those things.”
Stephenson is also willing to reconsider: “If there’s interest, let’s go for it,” he says.
But Crowder says that while she’s open to looking at mobile retail, she’s not sure there’s anyone clamoring for the change.
“I don’t know that the city necessarily needs to be planning for it if there’s no desire for it,” Crowder says. “If there isn’t anyone doing it, then I don’t know why we would enact an ordinance that no one is using.”
UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, the Raleigh City Council voted to again take up the mobile retail ordinance—sort of. But instead of advancing it to the planning commission, the court punted back to the Economic Development and Innovation Committee, where the ordinance lingered for most of last year. Although Mayor Nancy McFarlane had previously tweeted she would bring the ordinance back up, it was council member David Cox who made a motion to resurrect it. Council member Kay Crowder then asked about the possibility of expanding the ordinance to include professional services, such as dental work or hair styling. “I would say we should probably not discriminate for just retail,” Crowder said.