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Bring on the food trucks

by Eric Ginsburg

BY ERIC GINSBURG eric@yesweekly.com

Food-truck enthusiasts have certainly gotten the ball rolling in the Triad, and if anticipated attendance at the city’s first food-truck festival in September is any indication, it will be difficult to stop the momentum.

More than a month before the Spring Garden Food Truck Festival, scheduled for Sept. 23, about 750 people on Facebook have said they are attending. While anyone who’s ever organized an event online knows the numbers can be deceiving, if anything this event will probably draw a larger crowd throughout the day.

While the concept of food trucks is nothing new, Southern cities have been slow to catch on to the rising trend, Guilford County Environmental Health Director Tobin Shepherd noted while addressing the board of health Monday. After a request from board Director Justin Conrad, a former conservative candidate for state Senate and owner of Libby Hill seafood, Shepherd addressed the board to explain how food trucks are regulated and monitored from a health perspective.

Officially called “mobile food units,” Shepherd explained that food trucks must have a relationship with a permitted restaurant for things like potable water and solid waste disposal. Any food truck operating in the county would notify the health department and would be inspected regularly.

Conrad, who has expressed concerns that food trucks from other counties would operate locally and pay taxes elsewhere, asked Shepherd if there had been problems with food trucks in other parts of the state where many more already operate and raised several other questions, but Shepherd said there weren’t any problems and assured the board that they would be fully regulated.

It’s no surprise that locals are excited about the prospect of more food trucks — as Taqueria El Azteca food truck owner Greg Munning said at the meeting, food trucks bring people together, as customers stand around and talk to each other instead of sitting in separate booths. They’re convenient, often have excellent food and can transform an asphalt wasteland into a destination. The main complaints so far have allegedly come from restaurant owners — though there seems to be no organized resistance — who fear the competition. The city could determine where exactly trucks are allowed to set up, and a supportive website has already suggested three locations around downtown Greensboro.

Maybe Conrad’s concerns are legitimate, but more concerning is the apparent conflict of interest of having a restaurant chain owner chairing the board of health. Whatever the cons to food trucks, other cities have taken the step into the 21st century and have seen the market take off.

Munning said he wouldn’t set up in front of a mom-and-pop restaurant unless given permission, adding that he would be thrilled if more food trucks opened near him because it would mean more business for both of them. With a strong citywide interest in making downtown more of a destination, food trucks seem to be an excellent way to draw people in.

Plenty of mobile food units already operate in the Triad, though much activity doesn’t require a permit or inspections. Selling cotton candy, popcorn, ice cream or bottled drinks, or selling food once a month as a registered nonprofit is under the radar — and plenty of other operations probably are too.

Permitted or not, some of the best food in town comes from mobile food units, like my favorite ribs from a grill set up in gas station parking lot. And for people like Munning, who owns El Azteca restaurant too, it’s a chance to expand his business.

As far as Shepherd is aware, High Point hasn’t brought the issue up yet, but with growing interest in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the Furniture City will probably take it on soon.

“What this town needs is a better class of food truck, and I’m going to give it to them,” Munning said. We hope he is not alone.

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