Restaurants, food trucks vie for downtown Minneapolis lunch crowd

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2013 - 1:28 PM

Warm weather heats up competitive tension.

Just before 9 a.m., Ahmed Makaraan passes 8th Street in downtown Minneapolis, eyes the bright food trucks jammed along Marquette Avenue and wonders if he’ll make it today.

The daily dash to find a profitable space is part of an increasingly fierce competition among the growing number of food trucks — from 10 just three years ago to 69 today — and bricks-and-mortar restaurants for the lunch business of downtown’s roughly 160,000 employees.

As several restaurants have closed in recent weeks — including Taco Bell and Taco John’s — food trucks continue to lure employees on hot summer days for oyster and crab gumbo, red curry burritos, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches and yes, authentic tacos.

“It’s like going to a different country all week long,” said Art La Beau, an employee of TCF Bank who has stopped going as often to the skyway restaurants for lunch and now hits the food trucks on Marquette three or four times a week. He likes the life they bring to the sidewalks, too: “There’s a lot of activity; you see people are standing around, talking while they eat, talking while they wait.”

Still, Makaraan and other food truck entrepreneurs face struggles of their own.

The first is laying claim to a profitable patch of road. On this recent morning, Makaraan starts pulling his Greek Stop truck into the only space left between eight trucks, Number 15345 next to the fire hydrant, when he sees an idling Honda Civic hogging the spot and directs the driver to leave.

“We’re all going to fit!” Makaraan says. The guy who makes cone-shaped Chilean empanadas two trucks down runs over to help him squeeze in — “Go back all the way, you got plenty of room, back, there, come forward, you got it” — until, much to Makaraan’s relief, he is ready for yet another day.

Spread the trucks out?

The tension between the two groups is embedded in a much larger issue: How can the city create a vibrant street life in a downtown overshadowed by 8 miles of skyways that keep too many people and businesses off the sidewalks and tucked indoors?

Doug Sams, who heads an organization representing skyway restaurants, praised the trucks for bringing in diverse entrepreneurs and brightening the sidewalks, but noted that in recent weeks German Hotdog and Peter’s Grill have joined the taco chains in closing as a result of the added competition. The food trucks’ expenses, such as property taxes, aren’t the same as for bricks-and-mortar restaurants, he said.

Skyway businesses are advocating for the food trucks to at least disperse more evenly instead of crowding into small areas — particularly on Marquette between 7th and 8th Streets — and drawing customers who work at Wells Fargo, Target, TCF Bank and other nearby companies.

“We believe that the number of meals sold downtown is going to be the same whether the food trucks are there or not, and when they are there the other restaurants are going to be diluted,” said Sams, president of the Downtown Food Committee and owner of J. Brian’s Deli & Catering in the skyway.

He said the committee has been meeting with the food truck owners to discuss a proposal to take to the City Council for approval that would create 10 zones throughout downtown with three trucks assigned to each. The trucks would rotate zones. Sams also said food trucks operating downtown should have more expensive licenses — currently each one pays $818 — than those going elsewhere.

Scott Carpenter, who owns a Taco John’s that closed this month, said it took all winter to catch up after sales fell behind the past two summers.

“We’re back to summer and our volume goes down,” he said.

“I’m not an enemy of the food trucks — they’re here to stay, and we’ve got to accept them — but it’s just got to be handled in the correct manner,” he said. “They are well-liked, let’s spread them around. Limit the number of trucks in a city block.”

Topolo opened this summer, serving tacos and Mexican-style corn. The truck’s owner, Eileen Moore, spends most of the year at her restaurant by the same name in Mazatlan, Mexico. She said it all balances out: People come to the food trucks in nice weather, but they’re back inside the skyways when it’s (more often) not.

An issue elsewhere

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  • Eileen Moore, owner of the Topolo food truck, and Erik Holmgren filled lunch orders in downtown Minneapolis Monday. Some bricks-and-mortar restaurant owners say food trucks are hurting their business and have a competitive edge.

  • Food trucks along Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis have a steady stream of customers.

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