On any other day of the week, it's a dusty cutout of land in South End that accommodates on-the-clock lunchgoers looking for a quick place to park and grab a meal. Price's Chicken Coop, Phat Burrito and Common Market are in close walking proximity. But at the end of each work week, the parking lot comes alive with a vibrant communal event dubbed Food Truck Friday.
Since its inception in February 2011, Food Truck Friday has evolved from an opportunity to try some of Charlotte's best food-truck offerings to a destination for friends, family and community, not unlike the green spaces of Central Park in New York City or Dolores Park in San Francisco. Except that it's in a sparse grass lot in Charlotte.
On this particular summer evening, 14 food trucks have assembled in a jagged horseshoe. Generators hum along, but not loud enough to drown out the throngs of people — friends, couples, neighbors, multi-generational families and first dates — who have come to shrug off the worries of the week and enjoy a night out. What used to be contained inside the curve of four or five food trucks now spills onto the sidewalk, where people create makeshift picnic areas with lawn chairs and blankets. The food coming out of the trucks is some of the most creative Charlotte has to offer, and lines are long. Over the course of the evening, like most Fridays, anywhere between 1,800 to 2,500 people will show up.
As with any business, food trucks are subject to city and county regulations, including code enforcement and zoning laws. But a pervasive feeling among food truck operators is that the city and county do not understand them or the food-truck business model and consequently enforce regulations that hurt their profit margins.
In January, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission rattled the food-truck world and its loyal fans with talks of modifying existing regulations. Some changes would ease current restrictions, such as decreasing the distance food trucks must keep from residential areas from 400 feet to 100 feet. But others, including banning trucks from residential neighborhoods altogether and closing trucks before 10 p.m., are totally unreasonable, truck owners argue.
Any changes were supposed to be made this month, but Katrina Young, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg planning manager, wrote in an email to Creative Loafing that the meeting would be postponed until November as the committee discusses other mobile-food operations, such as mobile farmers markets and other mobile retail uses.
The city and county implemented an ordinance governing mobile food vendors in 2008, when a distinctly different fleet roamed the streets: loncheros, or taco trucks. Occupying working-class immigrant neighborhoods, they were the city's first mobile food vendors.
Loncheros would typically set up for long shifts outside of neighborhoods to feed hungry workers as they returned home from a second or third shift. The loncheros' operating hours were long, usually 5 a.m. to midnight.
That year, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department began receiving complaints about trash, safety, noise and late-night loitering.
The consequent ordinance limited hours for food trucks to between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., enforced restrictive permits that only allowed trucks to frequent the same location 90 days of a year and had to be renewed monthly, and required the trucks to keep 400 feet from residential neighborhoods and other mobile food vendors. They were also banned, though not explicitly, from operating in office parks.
Food Truck Friday technically violates the ordinance, but advocates like Charlotte Center City Partners have protected it over the years.
But no such support mounted for the loncheros. Before 2008, 60 to 70 operated in Mecklenburg County. When the ordinance passed, cutting hours, tightening permit requirements and enforcing separation requirements in residential neighborhoods, it practically obliterated the lonchero business. By 2011, there were only seven left.
With help from Action NC, an advocacy group that fights against social and economic inequality, and the Institute for Justice, the lonchero community mounted a campaign that included petitions and community discussions around mobile food truck regulations and restrictions. The campaign raised awareness for their lot, but the ordinance remained in tact.
During this time, the first gourmet food trucks were hitting the streets of Charlotte.
Karen Trauner, owner of the dessert truck Sticks and Cones Ice Cream, was among that second generation of food trucks. Trauner and her husband David have been two of the strongest advocates for Charlotte's food truck community.
After the Planning Commission began to meet in January, Trauner created the Charlotte Food Truck Association, which operates through charlottefoodtrucks.org. Within the first three days, a petition supporting more relaxed regulations had accumulated 3,000 signatures. Trauner and the others in the food truck community would like to be able to park close to each other and operate in residential neighborhoods and office parks, among other changes.
"My husband and I have fought very hard for the food trucks because it's something we feel is important," says Trauner. She says a negative perception of food trucks as renegade "roach coaches" persists, even though they must undergo the same health inspection as restaurants, a policy enforced after 2008. They must also have vehicle insurance, liability insurance, a business permit and a verified commissary or restaurant where they can dump grey water and grease.
"Honestly, we don't do much other than a food truck rally that doesn't require a contract," she says. "With food trucks, it's a huge investment. We have to pay for the labor, the propane and the food."
For many budding restaurateurs, food trucks are a more economical way to make a living than owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Startup costs are significantly cheaper. Michael Bowling, chef at Hot Box Next Level Street Food, began his food truck last summer after losing his job. The truck was a start-up, a way for him to gain employment.
"Food trucks have helped Charlotte's economy," Bowling says. "To me, it's [some of the proposed regulations] a lack of understanding as to what food trucks are."
Kenny Smith, District 6's representative on City Council, is pro-food truck. He says they add tremendous value to quality of life.
A Republican, he thinks the industry is overregulated.
"I think we make it more difficult for them [food trucks] to do business. I think we can make their lives easier, and I don't think we should cast blanket regulations to these sophisticated providers."
Karen Trauner cites other mobile businesses, such as lawn mowing and landscape services, arborists, caterers and painters, that do not have to jump through the same hoops. "They are all mobile businesses that are all requested to service properties with a contract. They don't need permits."
Gaines Brown owns the vacant piece of property on which Food Truck Fridays is held. He is a community activist, often referred to as the "George Washington of South End." Brown moved his art studio to the neighborhood in 1983 when it was a vastly different place, unpopular and underdeveloped. The way Brown tells it, his goal was to turn the area into a healthy community. He began with art crawls in 2002 and, in 2011, allowed food trucks to start congregating on his land. Food Truck Fridays was born.
"I wanted people to go to South End and realize it's a safe place to be," he says.
As cranes continue to move into South End, erecting a new crop of residential development, Brown stresses the need for communal space.
"These public gathering places are so important in this era of high-density, high-transit living. It's a social movement."