- Coutney Lamdin
- Ross Yannecy
On most summer nights, you can find Ross Yannecy slinging burgers and tacos on Burlington's College Street.
His big black-and-white food truck, Fast Food Good Food, is hard to miss. It's festooned with multicolored neon lights inside and out, and music plays through big speakers affixed to one side. Yannecy operates his greasy spoon on wheels from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. in front of Finnigan's Pub, a prominent spot not far from pedestrian-packed Church Street. His is one of two trucks permitted to operate downtown.
While pub-crawlers go for Yannecy's grub, others are less keen on mobile kitchens like his. Critics claim the trucks benefit from doing business at a lower cost, which puts the 100 or so other downtown eateries at a competitive disadvantage.
"You have brick-and-mortar restaurants open 12 months a year," Church Street Marketplace Commission chair Jeff Nick said. "For a food truck to come in and pick and choose the prime times and then leave doesn't seem very fair."
Although it is not unique to Burlington — Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Boston are engaged in similar food fights — the conflict is heating up here. Just last week, the Burlington City Council passed a resolution creating a committee that could consider adding more food trucks downtown, where their presence is limited. The group is tasked with examining the current rules — and potentially adding new ones — to protect traditional food vendors.
And there's plenty of interest from would-be rolling restaurants. The city clerk's office, which administers peddling licenses, hears frequent requests, according to administrative assistant Christine Dunbar, who said, "I have to tell them no."
"They want reasons why," she told the city council's license committee last month. "They want answers."
The city's peddling ordinance does provide an explanation. Since 1995, the rule book had allowed just two food trucks in Burlington's "central peddling district," which comprises the area within Main, Battery, Pearl and South Union streets — but not on the Church Street Marketplace or near City Hall Park.
A general peddling permit gives more range, allowing food-trucking anywhere except the central district or near city parks and beaches. A general license costs $100 a year, while a central one costs $300. Each of the seven spots on University Place, by the University of Vermont, goes for $400, Dunbar said. The city allows 16 carts — that sell food and other goods — to operate on Church Street at a fee that ranges from $600 to $2,400 annually.
That's peanuts compared to the thousands of dollars tenants pay in rent each month. Commercial property owners pay taxes on 120 percent of their building's assessed value, according to the city's Chief Financial Officer Beth Anderson. If they're on Church Street, they also owe an extra fee to the Marketplace.
Both peddlers and restaurants pay a tax on gross receipts.
That's little comfort to Tom and Deb Miller, who've owned Ken's Pizza and Pub on Church Street for 45 years. They were two of a handful of business owners who appeared at the June 5 license committee work session to plead with councilors to uphold food truck limits downtown.
The couple said ArtsRiot's weekly truck stop on Pine Street, now five years in, has decimated their Friday night crowds. Like many other restaurants, Ken's struggles to draw customers during Vermont's long, cruel winters, and it's hard to catch up in summer when food trucks can just pull up and take the business, the Millers said.
"If you let food trucks in, you'll see a lot of businesses go out," Deb Miller said. "There's plenty of places for them to go and make money."
Leunig's Bistro & Café co-owner Bob Conlon told the committee that if food trucks are allowed, they should pay an equivalent cost of doing business downtown. Kountry Kart Deli owner Mike Williams agreed, admitting he felt slightly hypocritical since he started as a cart back in the day.
Those cart owners feel the pain, too. Sandi Pasagic, owner of Church Street Cheesesteaks, said food trucks are a nuisance with their loud generators and noxious exhaust. He complained that Fast Food Good Food has co-opted every cart's menu while saving hundreds of dollars in fees.
Marketplace rules dictate that carts can only be 32 square feet in size, limiting them to about four or five menu items each, according to Nathan Lantieri, the Marketplace Department staffer in charge of cart permits. According to Yannecy, he offers up to 24 dishes from his truck.
"That's like putting a Walmart next to a boutique," Pasagic quipped.
Yannecy waved off the criticism. He said he pays for insurance and taxes, too, and thinks there are more than enough customers to go around, especially the late-night crowd he serves.
"This is America," Yannecy said. "This is capitalism."
Though there are two downtown food truck permits, Yannecy's is the only one in use. A Single Pebble, the upscale Chinese restaurant on Bank Street, holds the other but has never used it in the central peddling district. Owner Chiuho Sampson said she took her truck elsewhere after she learned her College Street spot was across from Zabby & Elf's Stone Soup and directly in front of retailer Common Deer's storefront.
"You don't want somebody to block your signage," Sampson said. "If there's a line to it, you're gonna block the sidewalk, so it's not convenient for people to pass by. You look at Burlington right now ... There's no place for [food trucking]."
Sampson said construction, traffic and lack of parking all make for a difficult food truck experience downtown. She is slinging spring rolls elsewhere in the city, including at breweries and other private properties, which is allowed under her central peddling district permit. Sampson would rather see the city open a designated space for trucks.
So would Solomon Bayer-Pacht, co-owner of the Farmers & Foragers food truck. While he said he'd love to see more spots downtown, he's not sure he'd apply for one if they become available.
"We would feel weird to set up facing another restaurant," Bayer-Pacht said. "To be parked up on a curb downtown feels like it would be awkward."
Instead, he imagines a city-sanctioned gathering spot near the waterfront, perhaps at the reenvisioned Moran Plant, with picnic tables and an outdoor bar — a scene instead of just a curb to call his own.
City Councilor Adam Roof (I-Ward 8) chairs the license committee and introduced the resolution creating the food truck committee. He said he doesn't know how to solve all the food truck problems but thinks the status quo is unfair.
"You could throw your bucket of poutine from the cart on Church Street to the truck on College Street, and there's a massive difference in the cost [to operate each business]," he said. "That's the problem. What's the solution?"
That'll be up to the food truck committee, Roof said. Food cart, food truck and restaurant owners; a city staffer; a city councilor; and others will sit on the panel. Those interested in serving have until July 9 to apply. The selected committee will report back with recommendations this fall, the resolution says.
"The role of good government ... is to set a level playing field within a marketplace so businesses can legitimately compete," Roof said. "I'm interested to see what comes out of the other end of this process."