Food Trucks in Jax: DVI Board Votes No

March 30, 2012 102 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

With Jax Truckies Food Truck Championship taking place this weekend, Downtown Vision's Board of Directors votes to further restrict this burgeoning small business sector from being a part of our downtown revitalization process. With our public agencies continuing to take a sledgehammer to a fly and prohibiting a revitalization movement in the process, Jax Truckies organizer Mike Field expresses his views towards this industry and where it stands in Jacksonville.

We currently sit on the precipice of a burgeoning entrepreneurial-driven industry. The question we now face is will we take that next leap? Will Jacksonville allow an environment that is less hostile towards mobile food trucks?
Food trucks represent the type of innovation our community needs to rise above the Great Recession. Food trucks have shown us how business owners can adapt to changing times. Will our laws now change with them? In my opinion our economy and our downtown need them.

Our city needs more jobs. It's no secret that small businesses must lead the way for an economic recovery to take place.  Small business accounts for roughly half of U.S. labor markets employment. Furthermore, small businesses typically fill niches in the labor market that are underserved and traditionally have high rates of unemployment.
Many food truck operators are disenfranchised former employees who have been laid off due to the crushing economic forces of the Great Recession. Food trucks offer an affordable way to open a small business. More so, they have proven to be incubators for larger expansions of small businesses. In the restaurant industry, nearly half of new businesses will fail. Food trucks offer less risk than a traditional restaurant as the start-up and operating costs are much less than traditional brick-and-mortar locations. There is still inherent risk —just ask a food truck operator how a week of inclement weather will affect their bottom line. However, the risk of opening these types of businesses is mitigated by the cost structure and flexibility of scheduling. I grew up in a family that was in the restaurant industry and spent many long hours working in kitchens. I’ll never forget being told by former partners that the food industry is somewhere that ‘takes money in order to make money’. That kind of advice is daunting to a would-be entrepreneur.

Riverside's Pele's is an example of a brick & mortar business that started as a mobile vendor.

Shouldn't we encourage a level playing field in which someone can open an affordable business and stake out their own pursuit of the American dream? These would-be entrepreneurs deserve an opportunity to forge their own economic destiny. These economic engines don’t require large public subsidies to expand. They don’t even require taxpayer-guaranteed loans. The city simply needs to get out of the way and let these creative and innovative entrepreneurs do what they do best.

Downtown Jacksonville is currently underserved. This will be especially true with the addition of Everbank employees downtown and the opening of the new courthouse. Food trucks can provide temporary uses for the multiple empty lots that currently litter our downtown landscape. Whereas an empty lot is unwelcoming, food trucks stimulate pedestrian activity by activating unused spaces. By improving walkability, you make downtown more desirable both as a residential neighborhood and a place where more companies will want to do business.

In a recent study, 58% of business owners in downtown Portland found food vendors increase foot traffic. More foot traffic adds to the vibrancy of nearby retail stores. It’s no surprise then that big box retailers across the country host food truck events in their parking lots. These enterprising stores have figured out that sales increase commensurate with the increase in foot traffic these mobile vendors bring.

While unproven fears of harming brick and mortar restaurants has created a hostile public agency outlook towards this industry in Jacksonville, cities with downtowns that have achieved a level of vibrancy that we can only dream of locally designate locations for this industry in their cores.  As a result, more foot traffic is created, opening additional retail and dining opportunities where vacant buildings once stood.

Cities like Boston and Vancouver have designated locations and shifts in which food trucks can operate.  Licensing designated spots in Hemming Plaza and the open space in front of the new courthouse would not only provide needed revenue, but would also serve to make these public spaces destinations and not pass-throughs.

It will take leadership to modify rules to make this viable for Jacksonville. Strong leaders such as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Atlanta City Councilpersons Kwanza Hall and Natalyn Archibons have recently led the charge in their own cities to adapt rules to allow for mobile food vendors to operate. Mayor Bob Buckhorn of Tampa even hosts a monthly food truck event downtown. Even a small city like Sanford, FL recently started to host a food truck bazaar. Are we that far behind Sanford?

While hundreds of foodies enjoy unique local dishes from some of our newest small businesses, Hemming Plaza will continue to sit empty as a redevelopment committee struggles to find solutions that will increase its usage.

City leaders need to see the benefits these pioneering entrepreneurs can contribute to our community.  This is why Jax Truckies was formed.  In a city that fashions itself as being business-friendly, why stifle the creativity of entrepreneurs?  By allowing a favorable environment for food trucks we can allow the kind of innovation that contributes to the sustainable fabric of our entrepreneurial economy. Maybe then we can begin to live up to our moniker: The Bold New City of the South.

Editorial by Mike Field