Chuck Williams: The time has come for Columbus to have the great food truck debate

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 21, 2013 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Spotted at the Uptown Columbus Foodie Fest. 10.19.13

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

The time has come for Columbus to have the great food truck debate.

In many cities, food trucks are a way of life.

We're not talking about your daddy's food trucks that parked outside of a mill or construction site and sold cold sandwiches, chips and drinks to laborers.

We are talking about trucks that sell restaurant-quality gourmet food -- rolling kitchens with real cooks and even chefs, secret recipes, affordable prices and a little panache. The good ones are social media savvy operations that tweet locations and wait for the customers.

There is a food truck culture in many larger cities.

Is it time for that culture to develop here?

There is language for a Columbus city food truck ordinance in place and ready to go, but Uptown Columbus Inc., the nonprofit downtown development corporation, asked it be put on hold about a year ago, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said.

"It is all about timing, I am not sure we are there as far as timing," said Uptown Inc. President Richard Bishop.

Currently there are about 35 restaurants in the downtown area from Veterans Parkway to the river, about 26 of them local mom-and-pop operations, according to data provided by Uptown Inc. The fare ranges from Dunkin Donuts to Epic, a high-end restaurant located in the refurbished Eagle & Phenix Mill on the river.

Columbus residents got a taste of real food trucks last weekend. There were three Atlanta-area trucks in downtown Columbus Saturday night for a food festival sponsored by Uptown Inc.

"They are OK for special events, but to just come and set up, we are not there yet," Bishop said.

When asked Monday about food trucks, Tomlinson said she would like to see them downtown.

"They do it in other cities and they create a sense of vibrancy," she said. "You could be going to a food truck to get a hot dog and decide to eat at the Cantina or another restaurant."

Many of those who own traditional restaurants see the food trucks as unfair competition.

Just ask Jim Morpeth, founder of Country's, a Columbus barbecue restaurant. Morpeth has been doing business at the corner of Broadway and 14th Street for more than 25 years.

"I love them," Morpeth said of food trucks. "… But I don't think it is real good if you are trying to build a base of good, solid independent restaurants."

And that is exactly what is happening downtown right now. Morpeth said he recently walked Broadway and First Avenue.

"There is no shortage of places to eat lunch," he said. "I counted more than 20 places you could get lunch."

Other communities create locations for food trucks and restrict their ability to roam populated downtown areas.

One of the possible places to congregate food trucks here would be the newly opened Frank K. Martin Pedestrian Bridge on 14th Street.

"Jim Morpeth has been at that corner on Broadway since the late 1980s, and he has been through the good times and the really tough times," Bishop said. "Now, things are getting better, and we are going to park food trucks at the 14th Street bridge? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

Morpeth said Country's had kicked around the idea of a food truck. But one thing Bishop would not object to is food trucks operated and developed by existing local restaurants.

"One thing that could sweeten my appetite for it would be if locally owned restaurants had the first opportunity to develop food trucks before outside vendors come in and do it," Bishop said.

In some communities, food trucks are incubators for traditional restaurants. If you limit the opportunities, you restrict someone with the drive and a good idea from starting small and growing.

It is easy to understand -- and even appreciate -- the position taken by Bishop and Morpeth. And, more than anyone, Morpeth has earned the right to have his opinion carry weight. He has put his money, his barbecue and his sweet tea where his mouth is.

You would not want to do anything that would thwart the growth of traditional local restaurants. But as downtown continues to grow and develop, the time has come to have an honest debate about food trucks.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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