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
The food trucks vs. traditional restaurants controversy has played out nationwide, and officials in some cities have clamped down on the burgeoning industry. Last month, Washington, D.C., approved rules making food trucks go through a monthly lottery to win in-demand spots, and requiring that they only park along sidewalks with at least 6 feet of unobstructed space. Chicago last year increased fines to up to $2,000 for parking a food truck within 200 feet of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, and began requiring food trucks to have a GPS tracking device turned on inside.
And this spring, Duluth passed regulations that food trucks keep a distance of 200 feet from traditional restaurants, which some said could keep them out of downtown.
Minneapolis spokesman Matt Laible said the city is not seeking any changes to the ordinances in this area, and will get involved only if the two groups reach an agreement that would need municipal approval.
The city forbids food trucks from operating within 100 feet of a restaurant, unless the restaurant gives consent. They are free to park beside any of the meters downtown, as well as in designated areas elsewhere in Minneapolis.
Makaraan noted that the food truck business is only viable in summertime and that they must be on constant watch for city parking enforcers.
“It’s very tough, this competition. It’s very hard,” he said. “I wish the skyway people knew exactly what we do.”
He started Greek Stop — which sells falafels, gyros and Greek salads — last year with dreams of leveraging the food truck into a real restaurant, much as World Street Kitchen, Sushi Fix and Smack Shack have done in the past year. Then Makaraan could serve more people for more hours. Now, his busy hours are just between 11:30 and 2:30, and he must load and unload food at a commercial kitchen that the city requires him to use. There’s pressure to find special events in the evenings so he can do more business.
Like several other food truck owners, he maintains that skyway restaurants should pay closer attention to the quality of food they serve, rather than complain about their proximity to a line of food trucks.
All of the people running the food trucks have higher ambitions, according to Sushi Fix owner Billy Tserenbat, who also parks on Marquette.
“Every food truck here wants to open a bricks-and-mortar, trust me — nobody wants to just do a truck,” he said.