The monthly event that brings food trucks to Bienville Square is either called Food Truck Friday or “famine Friday” depending on who you ask.
Downtown restaurant owners aren’t happy about the city-sponsored event they say is siphoning customers from their establishments on what is historically one of the busiest lunch days of the week.
Todd Henson, owner of Cafe 219, said servers call the event “famine Friday” because of the slow lunch it produces for the brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“There was not a soul in the restaurant this week,” Henson said, referring to the last Food Truck Friday held on April 24.
While the event, promoted by Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office through fliers and announcements, is only held once per month, it’s a big loss to downtown restaurants open only Monday through Friday, Henson said. He explained restaurants only open during weekdays essentially have 20 days each month to pay the bills and the event is a big hit to sales.
“It takes half a day out of the 20 days,” he said.
Other restaurant owners agree, saying downtown Mobile is not a big enough market for brick-and-mortar establishments to compete with a convoy of the four-wheeled variety.
Pete Blohme, owner of Panini Pete’s, said the market is too thin for both food trucks and traditional establishments. He said instead of bringing more people downtown, the trucks only poach the Friday business lunch crowd that already frequents the area.
“Friday’s normally a good lunch day,” he said. “It has a direct impact.”
Cooks at Panini Pete’s get sent home early and servers make less money on days the eight to 12 food trucks are encouraged to park downtown, Blohme said. All in all, Food Truck Fridays result in a 25 percent drop in business for his Dauphin Street restaurant, he said.
Blohme said he understands what the Stimpson administration is trying to do and complimented the administration for assisting with his business needs at times, but suggested food trucks need to be invited on a day that helps promote downtown business, like Saturday.
As an example, Blohme mentioned the success of an episode of the Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race” filmed downtown one weekend last year, an episode in which he served as a guest judge. The competition-based reality show brought three out-of-state food trucks to Dauphin Street for a weekend, but it resulted in wide patronage to many establishments downtown.
“This town’s support of the Great Food Truck Race blew me away,” he said. “Saturday and Sunday is when we’re normally dead.”
Laura Byrne, a spokesperson for Stimpson’s office, said the administration is sympathetic to restaurant owners upset over the event, but added that there is strong community support for it.
The idea for Food Truck Friday was to create energy and vibrancy downtown, she said. It was more about bringing the community together. Byrne said the administration has an initiative in the works to help promote more traditional downtown restaurants as well.
“We do want them to succeed as much as the food trucks,” she said.
As for the trucks’ regulations, Byrne said owners must get a business license from the city and let the administration know ahead of time where on Bienville Square they plan to park.
The event is getting more and more popular among food truck operators, as participation grew to 11 trucks on April 24.
Carol Hunter, spokeswoman for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said the office has heard complaints from restaurant owners about the food trucks as well. She said they have asked the city to meet with owners of brick-and-mortar establishments before committing to the event long term, but noted the Alliance hasn’t taken an official opinion on the potential conflict.
Hunter said more regulations on food trucks could be in order to help level the playing field, but added it’s important to look at the “whole picture” when considering what to do. She said regulating food trucks is a hot topic in many cities around the country.
“There are lots and lots of good models out there,” Hunter said. “If the city wanted to, we could contact counterparts in other downtowns.”
Marshall Barstow, owner of Mama’s on Dauphin, said he thinks there’s a need for food trucks and operates one himself, he just doesn’t want the conflict to “balloon.”
“I think it’s a cool idea,” he said. “It’s such a trendy thing, but I don’t want to see it get out of control.”
He used April 24 as an example of how it could get out of hand.
“I don’t know how those guys made enough money to make it worth their time,” he said.
Barstow said he uses his truck at weddings and at the Greater Gulf State Fair, but wouldn’t take it out to Bienville Square for a weekday lunch. He said he has used his truck during Mardi Gras.
“Maybe come downtown when it’s got Mardi Gras or Bayfest, or a time when restaurants don’t have enough seats,” he said. “That’s when they’re in need.”
He suggested maybe moving the event to Government Plaza and limiting the number of participating trucks to three or four per month on a rotating basis.
John Serda, owner of Serda’s Coffee, said he too is supportive of food trucks and doesn’t mind the competition, as long as it’s fair.
“I love the idea,” he said. “I believe in ‘the more the merrier,’ but I also believe in a level playing field.”
Serda also owns the building housing his coffee shop and said as a result, he pays annual dues to the Downtown Mobile Alliance close to $3,000. He said he also pays property taxes on the building, which food trucks don’t.
“I do like the idea because it brings a lot of character to the area,” Serda said. “It would be great if we had a lot of people leaving Midtown or West Mobile (to come downtown), but we don’t. We have a very limited market.”
Serda said not only is Friday the establishment’s biggest day, but lunch is their “bread and butter.”
“It’s a struggle for a restaurant downtown now,” he said. “Then you add 10 more vendors. Where we were struggling, we’re now in the hole.”
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