Food truck pilot begins downtown Greensboro

by Eric Ginsburg

by Eric Ginsburg

There was no parade, no emcee or large banner inviting patrons in, just a few lawn chairs and a tent on a relatively small side street behind Elon Law School. There was no alcohol, no kids running around, no face-painting station or balloons. It was nothing like the Spring Garden Food Truck Festival a week earlier with its hour-long lines and crowds spilling into the streets. In fact it was unlike any other special event in Greensboro.

Yet the three food trucks set up on Commerce Place during a light drizzle and the kind of sky that makes it particularly difficult to get out of bed on a Monday morning were doing steady business by 11 a.m. They were making history as they chopped barbecue, sold cupcakes and put sausages inside baguettes, kicking off a two-month pilot program for food trucks in the central business district as city council and staff begin rewriting ordinances to allow greater access for mobile food units.

Under hoodies, hats and umbrellas, nearby residents and downtown employees happily devoured their late morning meals. Some, like Marisa Christen, braved the crowds at the wildly popular food-truck festival a week ago, but others welcomed the shorter lines and easy accessibility.

“Obviously they are a benefit to the people in the downtown area,” Christen said as she waited for food from the Hillsborough-based Baguettaboutit. “It’s a little bit more gourmet than a drivethru. I feel like Greensboro is on the cusp of a dining revolution, kind of like what you’d see in a big city.”

Eleven food trucks applied by the Sept. 27 deadline to be on the October schedule, four at a time on Commerce Place beginning at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday with dinner on Friday nights. Some food truck operators that aren’t participating in this month’s pilot will closely watch the results, with an eye towards participating in November.

Nicholas Benshoff started the Bandito Burrito food truck in the last few months after buy a truck in April. He’s been building the business in his time off from working 50 hours a week as the chef-decuisine at Josephine’s Bistro, selling 300 burritos and 200 tacos at the food-truck festival and selling out of some ingredients before the night was through. He still needs to acquire his mobile food unit permit — he had a temporary permit for the festival — and if paperwork and time will allow it, he hopes to set up downtown in November.

“I’m enjoying being 25 and starting a business like this and having a couple years to feel it out,” Benshoff said, adding he might want to open more trucks or a brick-and-mortar restaurant someday. “I can understand the city’s hesitation with downtown business… and making sure that we’re not undercutting their business. I couldn’t imagine going through it all and them not lifting ban or changing ordinance.”

Deciding to sell burritos came easily to the chef, who has been cooking for 10 years.

“If there was a truck outside a bar downtown, I would want to go get a burrito,” he said.

They’re easy to eat on the street and they are filling, and Benshoff has bought them from trucks outside of concerts in Chapel Hill. Even easier than a burrito on the go, Gail Bell’s desserts complemented the Hickory Tree BBQ truck based on Randleman Road and Baguettaboutit, the other two food trucks in the Monday slot after Taqueria el Azteca wasn’t able to participate during the first week.

Based in McCleansville, Bell started My Dream Cakes after years of selling her baked goods. Cupcakes line the window of her truck, and a sign proclaimed her biggest hit — a mouthwatering banana-cream pound cake.

“My original idea, and it was my fault for not doing the research, was to get the food truck and try and park it somewhere near the [Center] City Park,” she said. “The food truck festival was like a launch pad. It was spectacular. With all the excitement I think [the pilot] will draw people downtown.”

After unexpected setbacks, Bell was off to a slow summer, operating as an ice cream truck and advertising her baking skills along the side of the vehicle.

Thanks to funding from her nephew, owner Scott McGill, Bell is operational and participating in the pilot program even though she said limiting the number of trucks to four at a time seemed very restrictive.

“I’m all for any progress,” she said.

“I’d rather have slow progress than no progress. Like most things, people are fearful of what they don’t know. We need to move forward if the city’s going to grow and bring people in.”

Benshoff said he thinks there is a misperception that food trucks are unregulated or dirty.

“It’s nothing to be scared of,” he said, adding that some of the best chefs in other cities were on food trucks.

Most of the trucks signed up for the pilot, such as Stamey’s and 1618 Mobile Kitchen, are in Guilford County, where about 20 food trucks are based. Some food truck enthusiasts have questioned the wisdom of a pilot program as the temperature drops, but Greensboro’s small business coordinator Reggie Delahanty said the timing was council’s decision.

“At the same time this is going on, council is also exploring changing the ordinance,” he said. “This might just be something that’s going on in the period before any ordinance change can be considered.”

Delahanty said the city was open to making changes in the pilot program, and some began immediately. The city originally planned to offer dinner slots throughout the week, but based on feedback from vendors, decided to allow people set up for lunch to continue if they desired to but only assigning slots for the most popular dinner shift of Friday night from 5 to 10 p.m.

UNCG communications professor Marianne LeGreco is helping collect data on the pilot program and said the two driving factors that determine what people eat are cost and convenience. The university, county public health department and other organizations are working together to create more urban gardens, healthier corner stores and mobile farmers’ markets, an idea that could gain traction if the pilot program is considered successful, she said.

“If we can find more ways to get better food closer to people we’ll be a lot better off when it comes to food issues as a whole.”

There are nine food deserts — areas were people have poor access to fresh and healthy food— in Greensboro, primarily in the southeast, and six in High Point, LeGreco said. A mobile farmers’ market or food trucks could improve access in the underserved communities because there would be less financial risk than for a grocery store.