From young families and first-time business owners with a passion for cooking to brick-and-mortar restaurant industry veterans looking for a change, local food truck owners say the burgeoning industry is growing in the Historic Triangle.
“It’s definitely one of those spots that is catching on and we love it. The more the better,” said Matt Sileno, who opened the Matchsticks BBQ Co. food truck with wife Nicole last April. “Once the scene grows and there are more trucks that want to come to the area. It’s just better for everybody.”
In order to operate in the city of Williamsburg, food trucks must first be issued a business license, which is then renewed annually. A fire department inspection is also required before trucks can be issued a business license, and trucks must be inspected by the fire department each day they operate within the city.
Kathy Maynard, deputy commissioner with the city Commissioner of Revenue’s Office, said 14 food trucks are licensed to operate in the city. In James CIty County, business tax auditor Karen Killian said 32 trucks are licensed to operate within the county, provided they comply with all relevant zoning and permitting restrictions.
Those numbers are a far cry from just a few years ago.
FoodaTude owner Jim Kennedy said his truck was among the first to be officially licensed to operate in the area when he opened his business in July 2016.
Although the local scene is growing, some food truck operators have faced opposition from brick-and-mortar restaurants, and they say the City of Williamsburg has been slow to catch up with the trend. That could start to change this Thursday when City Council reviews a new set of food truck regulations intended to find a better common ground between local restaurants and food truck operators.
Matchsticks co-owner Nicole Sileno said that although some local owners have discussed forming an unofficial online group of local trucks, there is no business association overseeing food trucks in the area.
Local food truck industry
Carmen Blair, owner of Carmen’s Jamaican Authentic Cuisine, said she was inspired to open her truck after co-workers and friends offered to pay her to cook jerk and curried chicken for them. While she originally decided to open a food truck over a brick-and-mortar restaurant because of the lower financial risk, she’s found a number of advantages that food trucks are uniquely positioned to offer area consumers.
“I’m still learning, but it is exciting for me,” Blair said. “I quit my job in January with no other income; I just up and quit. I had a little bit of savings and that’s what I put into my business and now I’m running it.”
Kennedy agreed, but said certain disadvantages come along with the opportunities afforded to him as a food truck operator, including lower customer counts on days with inclement weather.
“We’ve got everything on the truck that we need, so one of the advantages is that we’re mobile, and we can change our menu quickly, which we do,” Kennedy said. “We’re not stigmatized into any one thing. It’s not just barbecue or burgers and fries, we do everything.”
Relationship with breweries
As more locally-based food trucks have opened up, James City- and York County-based breweries regularly host them to complement their usual craft beer offerings.
One such brewery is the Virginia Beer Company on 2nd Street in York County, which opened in March 2016. Since it first opened, co-owner Robby Willey said he’s seen the number of food trucks grow from just one to more than a dozen based around Williamsburg and Toano, all regularly operating at area breweries, weekend events and catered events.
“In order to show off some of the local flavors that oftentimes can be paired with the beers, the food truck scene really complements the local brewery industry,” he said. “The idea behind a craft brewery such as ours is you’re coming in, enjoying a pint of your favorite beer and you’re experiencing it mere feet from where it’s being brewed, and having some small snacks and a warm meal really complements that.”
Dave Baum, owner of Billsburg Brewery in James City County, said he also tries to host local food trucks on a daily basis and can always expect to see an uptick in business when food trucks are parked at the brewery.
“I think we definitely have an audience that is looking for food to go with their brewery experience,” Baum said. “It allows them to stay a little bit longer and bring other members of the family who may or may not be interested in the craft beer side of the house, so I think it just complements and completes the whole experience.”
Although the food truck industry in Greater Williamsburg has grown, some operators believe the city has been slow to catch up with the trend.
Food trucks are allowed to operate in Williamsburg in two ways. The first is through a special-use permit, which is reviewed and approved by the city manager’s office as long as the event is on public property. Food trucks are also allowed in the city’s Culinary Arts District along Capitol Landing Road from Colonial Parkway to Merrimac Trail.
Adam Steely, general manager and co-owner of downtown Williamsburg restaurant the Blue Talon Bistro and chairman of the city’s Economic Development Authority, was a member of a work group formed by the city in 2017 to better shape the city’s food truck regulations as a compromise between trucks and traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“Brick-and-mortar restaurant owners have made investments that are dramatically greater than the operator of a food truck, and that investment both in the economic vitality but also just in sheer entrepreneurial capital, needs to be respected,” Steely said. “On the other hand, the argument has merit that there are those occasions during the year where the crowd of people is simply larger than restaurants have the capacity to address, whether it’s sheer numbers or diversity (of food options).”
On Thursday, City Council is expected to review a new set of regulations for food trucks that would allow them to operate in active and developing commercial hot spots, including High Street, downtown and midtown with a special-use permit, along with a limited number of events on private property.
The ordinance establishes a 100-foot buffer between brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks downtown. Food trucks seeking to operate in these commercial districts would have to pay a $50 permit application fee for each event, and the Williamsburg Fire Department would be required to inspect trucks prior to issuing a business license and on each day that the truck is in operation.
Blair said she would be excited to operate her food truck in areas such as High Street, but believes that the permit application fees could pile up over time, affecting her bottom line.
“That’s still going to be touch-and-go because you might pay $50 and you only make $50 or you make less, it depends on the day. So we as food trucks would have to be smart on what day we want to go out there,” she said.
Kennedy said the proposed regulations are still overly restrictive for food trucks looking to operate in the city, and food trucks do not compete with traditional restaurants and serve different customer bases.
“For people who are going to a food truck, it’s the destination of their choice, and people that are going to a restaurant, it’s the destination of their choice, so why can’t we all work together and have some common-sense rules and areas where we can park,” he said.
Where: City Council Chambers, Stryker Center, 412 N. Boundary St
When: 2 p.m. Thursday
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.