On the shaded sidewalks of Austin Avenue, a food feud is on between brick-and-mortar restaurants and eateries on wheels.
Several restaurateurs along the revitalized downtown street say food trucks are competing unfairly by parking in public spaces where they do not have to pay rent or property taxes.
“They take up customer parking,” said Jake Black of Jake’s Texas Tea House, 614 Austin Ave. “They take away not only from restaurants but they take away from what we’re trying to do downtown.”
Some restaurant owners say the existing rules on food trucks need more enforcement, while some, like Black, want to ban them from downtown streets.
G&K Hot Dogs owner George Gaylord addressed the Waco City Council last month, urging a policy to ban on-street food trucks within the boundaries of the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone. Gaylord said he was speaking on behalf of other restaurants, including Jake’s and Portofino’s Italian Café.
Gaylord’s business is a cart, but he said he has to pay ground rent, about $100 a month.
“I lease my spot here,” said Gaylord, who started in 2013 at Seventh and Austin. “I don’t think it’s fair that someone is able to set up and nobody charges them.”
Portofino’s owner Nick Colaku agreed that food trucks should not be in public parking spaces.
“If you have a truck in front of my restaurant, they have one person working, and they’re parking in a two-car space,” he said. “Who’s going to lose? The city’s going to lose, because 15 people are not going to have work.”
Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said Friday that he doubts the city would make a sweeping change anytime soon in its food truck policies, but city officials will take a look at the issue.
“It’s a balance,” Ford said. “We want to grow local entrepreneurs, and the cost of entry into the restaurant business is pretty high. At the same time, we want to respect those who have already made their investment.”
These growing pains are new in a reawakening downtown. A decade ago, eateries in the Austin Avenue corridor were few and far between. The downtown food truck boom is less than five years old.
While most food trucks are at Magnolia Market or the food court on University Parks Drive, several frequent Austin Avenue. Pedestrians can pick up pulled pork tacos or ceviche from Sergio’s, ice cream sandwiches from Pokey O’s or burgers from Captain Billy Whizzbang’s.
The city’s policy allows street food vendors if they have arrangements with other businesses for bathroom access, among other requirements. Outdoor vendors also cannot locate within 100 feet of a business that provides similar goods or services, unless they get consent from the establishment.
Those rules can lead to hard feelings.
A veto by a nearby restaurant recently forced Sergio Garcia to move his taco truck from the spot in front of Dichotomy Coffee and Spirits, 508 Austin Ave., where it has parked regularly for three years.
Garcia had an arrangement with Dichotomy to use its restrooms and electricity. Coffee shop patrons often brought in their burritos during lunchtime, and Garcia baked muffins for the shop.
But the owners of the new Stone Hearth Indian Café next door decided not to sign off on the waiver allowing the food truck to continue. Stone Hearth co-owner Roshan Thakor said he thought having a food truck on the street a few feet away was not good for his business.
“We thought about it quite a bit before we didn’t give permission,” Thakor said.
After Garcia moved in early January, Dichotomy owner Brett Jameson put up a series of notices at the door expressing his displeasure at the veto.
The current sign, milder than previous versions, reads: “No food from Stone Hearth Indian Café allowed in Dichotomy.”
Across the street
In the past two weeks, Garcia has moved his food truck to the private parking lot across the street.
Garcia said he does not have any bad feelings toward Stone Hearth, but he said tensions are generally high between restaurants and outdoor vendors.
“I think they hate the food trucks,” he said.
Garcia said he does not buy the idea that his food truck was cutting into the bottom line of Stone Hearth, a sit-down restaurant.
“Not at all,” he said. “We don’t sell the same food. Mine’s only tacos and burritos and fajitas. It’s a different audience.”
Thakor said he saw the food truck as competition.
“People think if someone wants a burrito, they’re going to go get a burrito. If they want Indian food they’re going to go get Indian food,” he said. “I disagree with that idea. In the end, we are both still food establishments.”
Thakor said he has no problem with Sergio’s leasing a food truck space across the street.
“He’s respected competition because it’s equal ground now,” he said. “It’s fair. I don’t have any problem with him at all.”
He said Garcia never asked him directly for permission.
“It could have led to better terms,” Thakor said. “It could have allowed him to stay exactly where he was.”
He noted that he worked out an agreement to allow Pokey O’s to set up on the block.
“It’s a communicative effort,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I slacked a little bit in my communications with Sergio, just a little bit. … I have no animosity toward him.”
Megan Henderson, executive director of City Center Waco, said the city policy of requiring permission from neighboring business owners can create “conflict points.”
But Henderson said it is better to work through those conflicts than to impose a one-size-fits-all ban on food trucks on downtown streets. Some parts of downtown are lacking in amenities and would benefit from more food trucks, she said.
And some of Waco’s newest restaurants grew out of food trucks, including Xristo’s Café on La Salle Avenue and the soon-to-open Milo on Franklin Avenue.
“Food trucks are important for the very reason that there’s a lower cost of overhead,” Henderson said. “It’s absolutely in our community’s best interest to have this as a way for restaurant concepts to get born.”
Austin Meek, the Pokey O’s owner, said a sense of solidarity among downtown business owners could help ease some of the tensions.
“I think there’s a way to work this out amicably,” Meek said. “You have to look at the benefits food trucks bring to the community as a whole. There are some who are frustrated and don’t see how (food trucks) are activating the block and bringing activity downtown. It’s hard to make that correlation. But we’re all on the same team. We just need to be on the same page. We’re too small to be caught up in internecine warfare.”