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City of Rochester Seeks Food Truck Feedback

August 19th, 2014

Pizza Stop. State State, Rochester. [PHOTO: non-euclidean photography, Flickr]
Last week I grabbed lunch at Pizza Stop – one of my absolute, hands down, favorite food joints in Rochester. After placing my order and (stepping promptly to the right) I noticed a petition* taped to the countertop. It was asking the City of Rochester to provide compensation to downtown merchants who lost business during a lunchtime food truck/cart event external link the week before. The petition argued that the City’s promotion of the food trucks caused nearby brick & mortar shops to lose money…

Brick-N-Motor food truck, Rochester NY. [PHOTO: Brick-N-Motor]
For a moment my heart turned heavy and I nearly lost my appetite. This is a very complex issue – like having to choose between two really good friends. Is there no way for traditional restaurants to coexist with the rubber wheeled variety? I quietly asked myself, “would these Pizza guys banish me for life if they ever saw me chasing the Poutine truck down State Street?”

This also happens to be a very timely issue because the City of Rochester is hosting a public forum this Wednesday, August 20th. The City is looking to put a permanent food truck program in place by January 1, 2015 and they are seeking public comments regarding the current Food Truck Pilot Program external link.

Stingray Sushi Fusion food truck, Rochester NY. [PHOTO: Stingray Sushi Fusion]
Meanwhile, the Rochester Food Truck Alliance external link is pushing for additional changes to the program before that legislation goes into effect. Current regulations require food trucks to park in pre-­determined, address-­specific locations. The alliance of food truck owners would like more mobility, similar to the system currently in place in Buffalo.

In a recent statement, Elizabeth Clapp, co-owner of Le Petit Poutine external link and spokesperson for ROCFTA said, “We need city officials to see that food trucks are a way to enhance the Rochester landscape. What better way to do that than with comments from our food truck customers? … We are asking food truck fans to come to the meeting to show their support.”

That meeting will be held at City Hall, 30 Church Street, in room 302A on Wednesday 8/20, from 5-7pm.

But what do we do? Keep the trucks on a leash, or let them roam free? This is getting heavy. I’m slightly afraid to state my opinion outright for fear I might be greeted with a “NO SOUP FOR YOU” next time I dine out.

*In all fairness to Pizza Stop, the petition was also spotted at other downtown eateries.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 19th, 2014 at 7:48 am and is filed under Art + Culture, Events, Rochester News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

34 Responses to “City of Rochester Seeks Food Truck Feedback”

  1. Hey, I was at Pizza Stop for the first time last week. Must’ve just missed you. 🙂

    Saw the same petition and had to think about it for a bit. Like you, I didn’t sign it. While I understand their concerns, brick and mortar restaurants are going to need to understand that food trucks exist, are their competition, and they’re just going to have to deal with it almost the same as any other nearby competition. I say “almost the same” because nearby brick and mortar competition isn’t going away. A food truck parked nearby won’t necessarily be there tomorrow.

    The point I think Pizza Stop is missing is that all of those people who came to Chowtown weren’t coming to go to Pizza Stop, so they didn’t necessarily lose any business from those who were attending. If people were specifically going to Pizza Stop, then decided to hit a food truck, well that’s their choice, isn’t it? On a positive note, the food trucks were only there one night, so it’s not like they lost a customer permanently.

    It’s absurd, from a business perspective, to treat food trucks differently from another competitor coming in permanently. Should the City, for example, prevent another pizza place from opening within a set distance from Pizza Stop to protect their business? Of course not, so why should they prevent food trucks from parking nearby, especially since I think we’ve only got one food truck that sells pizza? (And, it’s not like Tuscan is really competition. Given the choice between a couple of bucks for a slice, and $7 for a pizza of about the same size, I can’t imagine many are going for the latter.)

    My own view is there’s going to be two kinds of customers: those who were specifically going to Pizza Stop and wouldn’t be deterred from going there simply because Le Petit Poutine was parked next door, and those who were looking for something, anything, to eat. The latter could have just as likely instead gone to the new Dunkin Donuts down the street. Pizza Stop’s petition didn’t complain about them being close by.

  2. Adrian Martin says:

    When consumers have more choice, they win. More food trucks -> more choice. Businesses don’t want consumers to have more choices. Pretty simple. The owner of Pizza Stop does not want you to have the best lunch possible, he wants you to buy his pizza! It’s just too bad that he tries to achieve that through politics rather than focusing on his awesome pizza.

  3. Adrian Martin says:

    And it must be said that Pizza Stop blows that Tuscan food truck out of the water.

  4. Excellent points Tony. First, I should have mentioned that Pizza Stop was not the only business with that petition. I noticed it at Grill N Greens as well, and I’d bet it was at other places too. So I don’t want to pick on Pizza Stop.

    But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, we all want to see downtown flourish, right? That’s sort of the whole M.O. of this web site; support the little guys who make that investment in “Main Street.” So let’s say we let loose on the food truck restrictions and let them park where ever they want, for however long they want, Pizza Stop could have a row of trucks parked in front of their shop during their busiest times, slashing into their bottom line and could very well put them out of business, creating a vacancy where there didn’t have to be one. …not to mention I’d lose my one outlet for real NY pizza in all of upstate 😉

    Food trucks would be free and able to move to where the action is on any given day. And I can see how this could be a real problem for fixed location restauranteurs if the flood gates were to open.

  5. Oh, believe me, I don’t disagree that this could have significant negative impact on the brick and mortars if not handled correctly. This is new territory for us, and if the City were smart they’d look to other cities to see how they’ve done it successfully. Odds on the likelihood of that happening? 🙂

    I think the real problem is PS has had exclusive rights to a significant portion of the hungry crowd for a while now, and ANY competition is going to have an effect on their bottom line. Due to the lack of competition, their numbers have been higher than they would be in a normal situation and they’re basing their response on that.

    No matter what, PS needs to realize that as business improves downtown, their revenue is going to go down. They’ve had an artificially elevated level of success, but they have no right to expect that to continue in perpetuity. This is especially true if it comes to the detriment of other small businesses looking to start in the area. I’m sure even Dunkin has cut into their business some, but were they protesting when Lovely was there celebrating the opening of that (for whatever reason she was celebrating it…)?

    Being from Philly, I worked downtown for a bit and there is a food cart on every corner down there, most in front of another restaurant they’re competing with. They all seem to do just fine, but they’ve been in that situation for decades and deal with it as part of their business plan. PS (might have) had a business plan, but that plan now needs to change to accommodate the new reality. They’re railing against the food trucks because it’s a new kind of competition they’ve never seen before, so it’s an easy and obvious target. I still argue that the food trucks present them with no different level of competition than if the 3-4 empty retail spaces that are in the same building as them were suddenly full of restaurants. In that case, it would be exactly the same as 3-4 food trucks parking in front of them, except for the fact that those trucks wouldn’t be there all day, every day.

    As to solutions, I don’t have any as I don’t really see a problem here. For the moment, you might be able to get away with something like “You can’t park your food truck within a block of another eatery”, but that precludes them clustering together to provide options. Additionally, due to the dearth of places to eat, this might currently be a viable option. What happens when downtown’s revived and there’s no blocks without at least one place to eat?

    I’m afraid, as much as it pains me, I have to agree with those who believe in the Free Market Fairy on this one. Any regulations put into place to protect one type of business would only serve to harm the other. Let ’em have free reign, and let the businesses figure out how to deal with permanent and transient competition themselves. If their business isn’t viable with competition, then it dies. Yes, that might create a vacancy, but there’s nothing that says it would be permanent. Another, better prepared restaurateur could come in and put something new in there that COULD survive and downtown would be all the better as a result.

    As to their pizza…wasn’t bad. I like Cam’s and it tasted the same. 🙂

  6. Adrian Martin says:

    3 points:

    1) Downtown needs enough density to where there is so much lunch business that there will be lines at both food trucks and regular restaurants
    2) Pizza Stop has a line out the door every day at noon – if they lose 20 customers a day to food trucks, they’ll still have a line out the door every day.
    3) If Pizza Stop’s pizza can be rivaled by food from a truck, they are in trouble. They’re not in trouble. Grills ‘n’ Greens on the other hand… Seriously though, everyone who eats at Pizza Stop wants their pizza so bad that they’re going to stand in line for 10 minutes and then eat inside their 95 degree restaurant. They’re not going to abandon them for some $7 vegan tofu taco from a truck instead.

  7. I wish I had half the skill at Brevity that you do, Adrian. 🙂

  8. I don’t know… I think I’m still on the fence. On one hand, food trucks bring people out, and I like that a lot. On the other hand, despite some recent successes, downtown still has a big issue with vacancies – even at street level. So if I was Mayor, I’d be working to fill the voids first. And there are many reasons to do so.

    Also Tony, Cam’s participated in ROC Transit Day, and for that I am grateful. HOWEVER, Cam’s is no Pizza Stop. I’m sorry 😛

  9. Adrian Martin says:

    Fill the vacant office space downtown (i.e. create more customers) and the street-level vacancies will fill up. It’s better to grow the pizza than have people fighting over slices!

  10. Andrew says:

    Excellent discussion points, guys.

  11. Matthew Denker says:

    I think it’s going to be a long slog to repopulating downtown. it took half a century for it to hollow out based on businesses leaving to be closer to people who had moved to the suburbs. I think it is going to take much of that same time for the pendulum to swing back and reload. If there is an inherent advantage, it is that the density is much higher, so while it could take a long time to build thousands of houses across sprawling countryside, it only takes 3 years to build a skyscraper with 800+ apartments in it. And there’s really no limit to how many of those you build at once. Unfortunately, something would need to move the people of Monroe County back into the city en masse. I haven’t quite figured that part out yet, but fwiw, i’m working on it.

  12. ACW says:

    Brick-and-mortar restaurants have many advantages over food trucks: a set location where you can always find them, regular hours when you know they’ll be open, seating for eating your food, and protection from inclement weather, to name just a few. That’s why it so silly that they want to use city government to gain additional economic advantages over these fledgling food enterprises. I say let a thousand flowers bloom. The good restaurants–and I’m in strong agreement that Pizza Stop has the best pizza in Monroe County–will thrive, and the lousy ones will fail.

  13. Jim Mayer says:

    It seems obvious that having nearby competition will cut into profits but, in the restaurant businesses at least, things don’t seem to work that way. Clusters of restaurants often seem to do better than isolated ones. I don’t know whether food trucks work differently, but I haven’t noticed any conflicts in the South Wedge. Here is a link: http://leoweekly.com/dining/dining-guide-2013-what-helps-one-helps-all

  14. John Lam says:

    Current zoning laws governing food trucks stifle opportunity for an inexpensive feedback mechanism. In combination with social media for pop-up events, food truck operators can test latent demand and placemaking at temporary locations.

    For example, in 1999 i realized the East End lacked ice cream and even mentioned the idea to Mike Calabrese and others. Java’s tested the concept for a year at their current sandwich counter after lunch hours, but the staff felt it too cumbersome to operate. Years later a Yogen Früz opened across the street. Rather than wait more than a decade for ice cream, a food truck could have tested the concept quickly, and a succession of different food truck could have tested other concepts. Eventual success would have come sooner and helped the entire East End redevelop more quickly.

    Compared to other (sometimes even smaller) cities, Rochester is kinda late to downtown redevelopment. In contrast to the half-century wane, redevelopment can now happen faster, aided by data from food trucks and mobile commerce, which commercial realtors and property developers can analyze to reduce development risk.

    A good way to balance between brick-and-mortars and food trucks: change the law to allow food trucks on private property downtown without additional permits!

    Some property owners might let trucks operate without charge or maybe even subsidize and sponsor them to test commercial viability for a location. Operating food trucks on private property lets property owners consider the issue with more flexibility and finesse than zoning review. If food trucks cannibalize existing brick-and-mortars, property owners can adjust rents, select commercial tenants, or make other investments as they sense the market.

    The whole point: the rest of us then benefit from additional food choices, the rising food-tide, and a resurgent city.

  15. Andrew\ says:

    Who’s to say brick-n-mortar establishments and food trucks can’t live in harmony? Marty’s Meats posts up every Friday night outside Roc Brewing, talk about a helluva combo. It wouldn’t make sense for a pizza truck like Tuscan to park near Pizza Stop, since they’re directly competing for customers. But if a food truck existed that sold, say, frozen lemonade and smoothies, and Pizza Stop had some outdoor tables, we could have a more enjoyable situation for everyone.

    Other larger cities also have food truck parks with tables and shelter and bathrooms set up permanently. Not sure what’s going on at Front & Andrews but something like that would be cool to have downtown in an otherwise-abandoned location along the river. This could provide some balance between the two sides.

  16. ELF says:

    I wonder how many food trucks end up evolving into brick-and-mortar restaurants?

  17. To put this issue into context, it is worth noting that dozens of American cities are currently struggling to untangle this matter. From Seattle to Boston, the emergence and success of food trucks has restaurateurs (and municipalities) anxious, scared, even angry. Lawsuits are flying, statutes are being enacted, and the results?

    I note that as near as I can tell in looking at cities all over, nobody is happy, and no city seems to have found an answer. Even big cities like Chicago don’t seem to be able to find a balance (as well as a whole bunch of other cities much bigger than ours). So it’s not just a matter of scale and urban density. Food trucks are multiplying like rabbits, and Pizza Stops everywhere are getting really cranky.

    Interestingly, a recent national survey indicated that 50% of food truck patrons said they would simply have fast food if there was no truck, and another 20% said they would just skip the meal. So the folks who should be really worried are the McD’s of the world, apparently.

    In the end, I suspect that the market place will be the locus for sorting this out, since the laws are proving to be pretty hit-and-miss. Restaurants are going to have to deal with the fresh/local/novelty content of food trucks, and food trucks are going to have to figure out how to make pizza (or what have you) that can exist in the same solar system as Pizza Stop (which is a very special solar system indeed).

    What a tasty problem for us urbanites.

  18. Nick says:

    Food trucks do not have near the operating expenses of brick and mortar Restaurants. If food trucks are permitted to operate you will be seeing a lot of vacant real estate. Why do most people who operate food trucks choose a food truck over a brick and mortar restaurant ? My guess, it’s less than 1/3 the price. Your average restaurant build can easily top 150k, without rent, or purchase of the real estate, what’s a food truck cost ? 50k ? Then there’s no rent, or property taxes.

    Go ahead, allow trucks anywhere, your city will suffer, driving rent prices down, vacant properties, buildings for sale, taxes not being paid. Why would any operator choose to rent a building when he can buy a cheap truck for a few grand and park it out front of the same place and not have to pay for it?

  19. John Lam says:

    Operating expenses, fixed costs, and (one-time) start-up costs all differ and affect business decisions and pricing differently.

    http://diffen.com/difference/Capex_vs_Opex

    For both food trucks and restaurants, labor is the largest expense, not rents or other capital costs, and here neither trucks nor restaurants have categorical advantage.

    Though trucks do indeed have lower start-up costs (and thus a lower barrier to entry), they also have lower capacity and can serve fewer customers per hour; that is, to serve the same number of people requires more trucks, thus higher capital costs than might first seem.

    In addition, trucks have small kitchens and thus limited menus. They target different market segments than can restaurants. To say trucks would cannibalize restaurants in an unregulated market misunderstands this business and economics, and it causes misplaced alarm and undermines innovation.

    The best examples i can think to show this, in the largely laissez-faire Hong Kong (plus now burgeoning Guangdong), food carts and restaurants have coexisted for decades, along with night markets and food stands.

  20. Mike Gilbert says:

    One thing that has not been considered in this discussion is that perhaps the source of the petition has more to do with the City’s promotion of the “Chow Down Downtown” event, than the existence of food truck competition in general. This reminds me of the friction caused by the city’s promotion of High Falls nightlife at the exclusion of the more organically grown East End scene. As a huge Pizza Stop fan myself, I will give them the benefit of the doubt that their true frustration is with the LACK of fair-market impartiality on the part of their city. Not saying I’m opposed to the city promoting such an event, but it does change the competitive equation.

  21. daggar says:

    Nick, what food trucks do you frequent that are so much cheaper than restaurants? Petit Poutine certainly isn’t. Marty’s Meats isn’t. I have yet to find a bargain-priced food truck parked in the city.

  22. If you’re only comparing to McDonald’s, sure the food trucks are expensive. But, compared to most brick-and-mortars, they’re generally comparable or cheaper. $10-12 buys you dinner for two at Le Petit Poutine (of course, you have to have an awesome spouse who appreciates a good meal, too). Even if I were a terrible tipper I couldn’t duplicate that without expending a lot of brain-power trying to think of a place.

  23. Adrian Martin says:

    Umm, maybe appetizers for two for $12 at the Poutine Truck… If I was at Lux and hungry with $10, I’d have better luck at John’s Tex Mex or Veneto than the Poutine truck.

  24. Adrian Martin says:

    Sorry, not Veneto, Little Venice.

  25. An order of poutine for each of us is more than enough dinner. 🙂

  26. Urban Explorer says:

    A few comments:

    – If Pizza Stop were really worried about business, maybe they’d try some actual customer service with a smile, instead of the surly attitude I get whenever I go there.

    – If anyone has spoken to any city staff involved in this issue, or gone to any of the meetings, you would know they are exhaustively looking at what other cities are doing. As Mr. Decker pointed out, no city has figured this out.

    – Re: Zoning. Mr. Lam, done. The zoning law was changed in May to allow up to 60 “food truck” events per year on private property, including downtown.

    – State law prohibits a municipality from imposing distance separation requirements from restaurants for trucks operating in the public right-of-way (i.e. on street).

    – Free market economists are always talking about the “creative destruction” in a entrepreneurial economy. I don’t believe it’s the role of the government to quash entrepreneurial activity, in this case, in the form of food trucks, without some really compelling and valid health, safety, and welfare rationale. The power of the state should not be used to protect the buggy whip manufacturers, as it were, simple because they don’t like new competition and they yell the loudest.

    – Food trucks do pay property taxes. The food is prepared off-site in brick and mortar commissaries that are inspected by the health department.

    – Every single food truck employee is required to take a fire safety training class and pay for and wear a badge stating that they did. Would restaurants be in favor of requiring every single restaurant employee to do the same?

  27. daggar says:

    A couple samples:
    Le Petit Poutine standard: $5-10 (https://twitter.com/lepetitpoutine)
    Marty’s Meats: $6-12 (https://twitter.com/MartysMeats)

    None of these counting drinks. Those prices will get you a comparable amount of food at Pizza Stop, Hot Rosita’s, or Cravings.

    I see no price differential, unless you’re comparing apples and oranges (upscale place vs. food truck, or lunch+drink+sides vs. just lunch).

  28. It’s interesting that you posted links to the trucks, but not the ones you were comparing them with. When I go to Rosita’s, for example, all of the food items that would constitute a single meal are $8 (“Make it a meal with chips and a drink for just $9.71!”) Cravings…all of their sandwiches are $7. Oops, nope, some are $8.50.

  29. daggar says:

    Hot Rosita’s menu: http://hotrositas.com/

    Two tacos runs $5, comparable to the smallest poutine serving. The price of a “meal” at hot rosita’s includes a drink. So, it would get you the same amount of food at a truck. Food trucks don’t give out beverages for free.

  30. Hardly comparable. Two little tacos by themselves isn’t a “meal”. After eating them, I’d head out for some poutine to get full.

    Seriously, is it really necessary to continue this conversation?

  31. daggar says:

    Apparently you think it is. Two tacos + chips is a lunch easily comparable to the small-size poutine. For the large size poutine, you get three tacos. Or two slices of just about anything at pizza stop.

    Again, the price difference isn’t there.

  32. Brian says:

    Please consider supporting Food Truck Vendors and the Rochester Food Truck Alliance. In doing so you will support less regulation and a freer free-market. Consider, as well, supporting a single reasonably priced license to operate on public and private property rather than multiple licenses, oppressive, punitive fees.


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