A few weeks ago, Asheville City Council voted to allow food trucks like Suzy’s to sell in the city’s central business district. But sorting out those details has only begun.
by James Shea and Jess McCuan . photos by Matt Rose
Suzy Salwa Phillips and fellow food truck owners just got a big green light. After a year of lobbying the city to allow food trucks like Gypsy Queen Cuisine to operate in Asheville’s core, the truck owners got their way: An initial Asheville City Council vote on the matter in August didn’t pass by a large enough margin to change city ordinance. But on September 13, the council voted 5-2 to allow trucks to operate in the middle of downtown, provided they follow a few specific rules.
Now, the devil is in the details of those rules. And Phillips will be under pressure to plow through them in coming weeks as prime food-selling season comes to a close and winter approaches.
In essence, it’s about finding just the right space. Carts that sell, but do not cook, food—like hot dog stands—have long been permitted downtown. But trucks, which frequently require power for cooking, have not. In the run-up to the votes this summer, council member Cecil Bothwell and others expressed concern that generators would not only be noisy, but also environmentally unfriendly. Downtown residents were concerned that generators would crank away late into the night, and some council members thought groups of trucks on public lots would cause parking headaches. In the bigger picture, downtown restaurant owners said they didn’t want or need new competition in an already-flagging economy.
As a result of all this discussion, the new ordinance requires many things: First, only ten food trucks will be allowed into the central business district at one time. And how the food trucks operate there will be utterly important. The parking lot where they sit must be paved and on private property. Second, the lot should have landscaping and a sidewalk, and the lot itself will need a large power source, since the trucks won’t be allowed to run on generators.
But where to find such a space? Phillips, who formed the Asheville Street Food Coalition this summer, has been stumped. As of late September, she and the coalition were eyeing the long, narrow lot across from Rosetta’s Kitchen on lower Lexington Avenue and a lot in front of the Hiawassee condominiums behind the Asheville Civic Center, among others. After a few initial calls, though, Phillips was frazzled. “It’s a frustrating process,” she says. “The ones we want have owners who don’t live here. The ones who want us don’t have quite the right space.” The coalition, which includes owners of The Lowdown, Veggie Love, King of Pops, and Pink Taco food trucks, has already been pooling its resources to buy ads and do other collective marketing. Now, Phillips says, if they can’t get downtown landlords to cooperate, the coalition may be forced buy and pave a lot that meets all the city’s requirements. “We’re at everybody’s mercy here,” she says.
Food has always been an important part of Phillips’ life. Raised in Lebanon during that country’s civil war in the 1970s and ‘80s, her family always cooked meals and stayed together despite the chaos around them. “It was loud, bloody and sad,” Phillips says of her childhood there. “We distracted ourselves with food and drinking like it was our last day.” Her father was an American oil engineer who worked in the Middle East and Africa, and her mother was Lebanese. The couple met in Dubai and began a romance when her father visited Lebanon.
Phillips, 39, says growing up in a war-torn country was different, but she embraces the upbringing. She learned to speak Arabic, French and English and had a close-knit family. “We had family over all the time. Lebanon is about food.”
She moved to the United States in 1988, after the war became extremely violent and she and her mother fled to Florida (her brother was already living there). She began working in restaurants in her teenage years and has worked as a hostess and server for most of her adult life.
But Phillips has always had a dream: She wanted to cook, and she wanted to celebrate her childhood cuisine. Nine years ago, after moving to Asheville, she started a cooking show, Gypsy Queen Cuisine, which aired on the public access channel URTV. A few years later, she decided to open a restaurant. She gathered investors, and, in 2009, was set to move into the West Asheville space that now houses Viva Deli on Haywood Road. But with the economy in a serious slump that year, some of her investors backed out. The deal fell apart.
She opted to buy a food truck instead, raising cash for the truck through the website Kickstarter. Last November, she asked for $8,000 and raised the money in two weeks. “My biggest donations were from people that I waited on a couple times a week,” she says. She started parking her Gypsy Queen Cuisine truck at bars like The Bywater, where she sells falafel and tabouleh to bargoers a few nights a week. Even on the edges of town, negotiating access to spaces has not been easy. “I ran into a bunch of no’s,” she says.
But Phillips, who’s a pro at using social media like Facebook to get the word out, says the setbacks only encouraged her to fight. She knows she’ll be slammed in the next few weeks, keeping her truck operating while she negotiates space for trucks downtown. But she believes the ability to do business in the downtown core is critical for hers and others’ survival in the midst of a long recession. And she thinks new ethnic fare (hers and others’) will be a good addition to Asheville’s food options. “Just because our investment is smaller, doesn’t mean we don’t have the right to operate,” she says, answering brick-and-mortar restaurant owners’ objections to the food trucks. “This is like the grocery versus the tailgate market. We are offering food, but it’s on a totally different level. This is about how a business owner on a different income level can get ahead.”