Tevlin: In downtown lunch wars, it's skyways vs. food trucks

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 4, 2013 - 2:51 PM

Rolling restaurants have formed the Minnesota Food Truck Association to better respond to criticism, as well as help Minneapolis shape future regulations or changes.

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WSK co-owners (and siblings) Sameh, left, and Saed Wadi at the new World Street Kitchen on Lyndale in Minneapolis November 13, 2012. The pictures hanging on the wall are artistic photos, taken by Saed, showing details of the WSK food truck.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Dml - Special To The Star Tribune

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A couple of winters ago, Sameh Wadi came to the realization that serving lunch at his downtown restaurant, Saffron, wasn't paying off. So he stopped serving lunch and instead started a wildly popular food truck, WSK, that he runs at lunch during the summer.

He then leveraged the popularity of WSK into a new bricks and mortar casual restaurant of the same name near 28th and Lyndale. In doing so, he's about doubled the number of employees.

"I shut down lunch because I was out of the skyway system and people just weren't coming in," Wadi said. "Did I complain how the skyways were hurting my business? No, I did not. I adapted."

Wadi was responding to recent complaints from the newly formed Downtown Food Committee, a group of restaurants in skyways and at street level who feel the surge in food trucks is cutting in on their business.

In response, the rolling restaurants have formed the Minnesota Food Truck Association to better respond to criticism, as well as help the city shape future regulations or changes. So far, about 25 of the approximately 60 licensed Twin Cities trucks are on board, according to John Levy, a corporate lawyer by day, co-owner of AZ Canteen and the group's leader. They will meet Tuesday to discuss issues and respond to critics.

"We want to have a discussion and do it in a respectful and unified manner," Levy said. Besides issues with bricks and mortar restaurants, the group has a list of hurdles it sees hampering the food truck trade, including "bureaucracy that varies from city to city," Levy said.

But the association wants to go beyond squabbles with stay-put restaurants. They want to explore expanding the venues and locations and exploring such ideas as truck rallies, serving parks and lakes and city-sponsored events.

It's no question, however, that the food truck group arose from the noise created by the restaurant group. That group is led by Doug Sams, owner of D. Brians Deli, which perches just above the food truck fray off the skyway that spans Marquette.

"We think the original idea for food trucks in Minneapolis was a good idea," Sams said. "It brings a vibrancy and new vitality to the city."

And yes, there is a "but," to Sams' praise. Limiting the trucks to certain streets has created "an Oklahoma land rush" near his restaurant as trucks speed in at 9 a.m. to get a coveted spot, then wait two hours. He says some restaurateurs feel the trucks have "hijacked" some of their customers, costing them as much as 30 percent of their summer traffic.

So this is what happens when the goat belly and ox tongue people bump up against the bread bowl and MSG buffet people. A culinary clash.

"I understand the fear-based reasoning, because this business has been taking it in the shorts," said food czar Andrew Zimmern, the famous "Bizarre Foods" face behind AZ Canteen. "But the fact is, half the restaurants in the skyway are serving some of the worst food in the city. They are coasting on convenience."

Take that, skyway complainers, and it comes from a guy who eats bugs and testicles on television.

Things aren't quite as contentious in St. Paul, yet, because there are a lot fewer trucks. Jill Wilson owns both 128 Cafe and 128 Mobile Cafe. Because she sees both sides, "I always tried to be respectful and sensitive to other businesses," such as parking away from restaurants.

Wilson has had few complaints; some restaurant owners even wanted trucks nearby, "anything to bring more people into downtown St. Paul."

Sams says there are close to 200,000 people in downtown Minneapolis during a weekday, plenty of customers for everybody if the trucks were just dispersed. Sams is one of the owners who has tried to distinguish his businesses. He's one of the few who post nutritional information and calories right on his menu to attract health-conscious eaters.

Sams pointed out that the city had "quarantined" areas such as parks and the stadiums from truck competition, so they could help stationary restaurants, too. He suggests some things that make sense. The city could create four food zones downtown, assign trucks to a zone and then rotate them each week, giving each truck a guaranteed turn at "the honey holes."

Zimmern called that "a lovely idea. Zones work," he said.

"What drives me crazy is the angry, shouty level of discourse" from some of the restaurant owners, said Zimmern, adding that food truck competition will only make other kitchens better.

"The only restaurants that should be worried about food trucks are bad ones," said Zimmern. "They are already dead, they just don't know it yet."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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