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Largo restaurant owners hesitate to jump on food truck bandwagon

LARGO — Before the Nov. 19 food truck rally off West Bay Drive, event organizers visited local restaurants. They wanted to give them the opportunity to get in on the event, either by selling drinks or passing out menus to the thousands of people they hoped the rally would draw.

When food truck folks entered Smokin' Rib Shack on West Bay, though, they didn't get a warm reception from an employee there.

"He said, 'Well, we want a couple thousand people in here,' " recalled Todd Sturtz, 30, food blogger and rally organizer. "I wasn't really met with open arms there."

Rib Shack owner Corey Miller says he isn't as concerned about food trucks as his employee was. But he does wonder if more food trucks for Largo could mean less business for the city's restaurants.

Food trucks could be coming back regularly next year if the City Commission passes an ordinance set for discussion at an upcoming meeting. Some local restaurant owners are concerned that city leaders might hurt Largo restaurants in their rush to jump on the food truck bandwagon.

"I just want to make sure it's fair," said Michael Brandt, co-owner of Gulf Coast Po' Boys. Brandt, 49, is a New Orleans native and veteran of New York City's fine-dining scene who opened Gulf Coast Po' Boys on West Bay Drive in 2009.

"Are they going to be pulling their weight as far as the city codes and becoming part of the community?" Brandt asked. "Who's to say these people aren't going to be pirates, just run in and take the money and run out?"

Brandt is echoing concerns of Tampa restaurant owners, who have complained that monthly food truck rallies there have sapped their business. He says he hears the same gripes from restaurant owners in St. Petersburg, which had its first food truck rally Saturday.

"I know that there is this huge craze with food trucks," Brandt said, "but listening to other restaurant people in St. Pete and Tampa, it's almost like the cities aren't listening to their actual tax bases."

City Economic Development Manager Teresa Brydon understands Brandt's concerns but sees food trucks as a plus for Largo's economy. The Nov. 19 rally brought people out to Largo who had never been before, she said.

The proposed ordinance would allow for a maximum of 15 food trucks to each buy a $200 license to serve in Largo. Each truck would need an agreement with the owner of a commercial lot to park on, Brydon said. They couldn't just park on the street in front of existing restaurants, or park in one spot for more than 15 days consecutively or 45 days in a year.

The commissioners will talk about the ordinance Dec. 13, and if they're okay with it, the staff will bring it back to them for a formal vote in January, Brydon said. Largo's ordinance, if passed, will be up for review after a year.

Sturtz doesn't think Largo restaurant owners should be worried.

"Nobody likes competition," he said. "I think we can find a way where everyone gets to enjoy everyone's food."

Bryan Goodell sees both sides of the food truck vs. brick-and-mortar restaurant squabbles. Goodell, 40, is general manager of Wicked 'Wiches food truck and managing partner of Fresh, a Tampa restaurant. He thinks food trucks should be limited to rally-type events.

"If it's done correctly … it draws so many people that the overflow benefits other restaurants," Goodell said. "If they're just going to let people set up shop whenever, that can be kind of problematic."

Food trucks and restaurants can co-exist, Goodell says. But restaurant owners hoping for the fad to fade will be disappointed.

"Food trucks aren't going away," he said.

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Largo restaurant owners hesitate to jump on food truck bandwagon 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 3:31am]
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