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St. Petersburg reconsiders food trucks after restaurants share fears

ST. PETERSBURG — Just as food trucks seemed likely to roll in, several restaurateurs have begun to wonder whether this town is big enough for the both of them.

Voicing restaurant owners' misgivings, the Chamber of Commerce has joined the fray as the city enters the final weeks of debate.

"There's a lot of concern, and justifiably so," said City Council member Jeff Danner. "We have to be mindful of what they're saying. Food trucks just don't have that big, long-term brick and mortar investment that restaurants do."

It's an unforeseen speed bump in the road to bringing the trucks to St. Petersburg — a push that began nearly three months ago.

The city is poised to review several options for food trucks in the downtown area, with a vote expected in February. Among them: allowing food trucks to operate in vacant lots in and around downtown; encouraging food trucks to collaborate with private businesses; granting food trucks access to areas near the Pier or along Beach Drive.

Implementing any one of these could make St. Petersburg among the most food truck-friendly cities in Florida.

But after hearing restaurateurs' concerns, city officials said they might just leave things the way they are.

That means food trucks would remain virtually banned from serving their gourmet cuisine to pedestrians outside a special event setting.

And that would be just fine with Charles Marco, owner of Fortunato's pizzeria at 259 Central Avenue.

"I don't want them here at all," Marco said. "Everybody is for free trade and all that, but our concern is fair trade."

Marco, who has owned the pizzeria for seven years, said the economy has made owning a restaurant more difficult. And, he said, competition is already a fact of life in the business, with a new wood-fired pizza restaurant opening up just blocks away.

Food trucks' mobility and exemption from many local fees and property taxes give them an unfair advantage, said Marco, who worries trucks would encroach on the two hours window when he does the most business: lunch.

"They're going to come into an already saturated market, syphon off some of that business and leave," he said. "And they're done; they just made a ton of money for a couple of hours of work. If that's how it goes, I might look into getting a food truck myself."

In other cities, food trucks and restaurants have not coexisted peacefully.

Over the summer in New York, tensions neared a fever pitch when mobile vendors began to pull up right outside restaurants and sell similar food for less money. City legislators stepped in, attempting to regulate where food trucks could go.

St. Petersburg restaurateur Steve Westphal, who owns the Parkshore Grill and the Hangar among others, said there is room for compromise as long as trucks are regulated from the start.

His main concerns, he said, are how many trucks would be allowed downtown, where they could go and how frequently they could come.

"We don't want businesses to cannibalize each other in this town," he said.

But blogger and food truck advocate Todd Sturtz said that fear is misguided.

"If a family wants to go out to dinner and sit down and have a table service, they're not going to go to food trucks, he said. "And if someone says, 'I want pizza,' and sees a Korean food truck next to a pizzeria, they're going walk by it and still get pizza."

Sturtz, who reviews restaurants and organizes food truck rallies, said opening St. Petersburg to food trucks would allow both businesses to flourish.

"Without question, food trucks draw people to an area," he said. "They're organic and interactive and they have a following. Restaurants can take advantage of that to gain exposure — it's like free advertising."

Contact Marissa Lang at mlang@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

St. Petersburg reconsiders food trucks after restaurants share fears 01/13/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 13, 2012 4:48pm]
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