by Ian Froeb
A major update, including new details on the cause of the dispute and a lengthy interview with the owner of Monty's Sandwich Emporium, follows the original post after the jump.
Over the first year (and change) of the St. Louis food truck boom, one of the trucks' favored parking spots has been the downtown intersection of North Broadway and Pine Street. Now that bustling business corridor is the site of the latest clash between new mobile food vendors and established bricks-and-mortar restaurants.
On Thursday, December 15, Cha Cha Chow tweeted that it was open for business at Broadway and Pine. After a couple of innocuous follow-up tweets, the truck posted this:
The next day, Sicily Streat tweeted that it was en route to Broadway and Pine to serve lunch. Shortly thereafter, it posted a similar message:
In subsequent tweets, often replying to disappointed fans, Cha Cha Chow made it clear (without naming names) that complaints from restaurants located near the intersection of Broadway and Pine had led to the truck's eviction by the police.
Then, over the weekend, Mayor Francis Slay addressed the topic on Twitter, using the #fgs hashtag to signify that the tweet came from him personally, not his staff.
Case closed? If you're a letter of the law type, maybe. But, if you are a letter of the law type, then you would have to point out that even in the mayor's tart tweet there was an error.
Mayor Slay's press secretary, Kara Bowlin, helps clarify the matter when Gut Check calls to discuss the matter. The "ordinance" to which the mayor referred is actually a rule promulgated by the city's Streets Department. It stipulates that within the "Downtown Vending Zone," a mobile food vendor must remain at least 200 feet from a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
Kandace Davis, who with Linda Jones owns and operates Cha Cha Chow, argues that the restaurants complaining about the trucks at Broadway and Pine are splitting hairs about the 200-feet rule: "If we're 199 feet [away], that's a huge big deal."
Davis thinks these complaints are symptomatic of a larger lack of respect and an unwillingness to cooperate.
"We make it a point to support every single restaurant," near where they park on a given day, she explains. "We either go buy lunch or trade food. We're just in the habit of making friends. We want them to do well."
Davis suggests an additional concern: "The police officers, as a general rule, are unfamiliar with the rule."
Bowlin disputes this characterization, noting that the police department has a map marking restaurants within the vending zone and the 200-foot radius around each.
As for the conflict between trucks and restaurants, Bowlin admits, "There are a couple of restaurants that are frequent complainers."
As many food trucks have noted on Twitter, the mayor remains a supporter of food trucks. (Indeed, Cha Cha Chow retweeted his remark, without any additional commentary.)
Says Bowlin, "We're fans of good food, whether it's from truck, restaurant or stationary vendor." But everyone, she adds, has to play by fair rules.
Gut Check continues to work on this story. More as it develops.
Update (Wednesday, December 22, 4:05 p.m.):
Cha Cha Chow might not have felt comfortable naming names, but at least a few of the readers who have contributed to this post's wonderfully raucous, impassioned comment thread had no such misgivings.
"The recently opened Monty's is the new complainer," writes "braoul," referring to Monty's Sandwich Company, which opened just over a month ago at 200 North Broadway.
(Sicily Streat also wouldn't name the restaurant(s) involved in the dispute, but in several tweets on the matter it did mention "new" restaurants.)
Monty's co-owner Steve May chimed in farther down in the comment thread to explain his position. Shortly afterward, I spoke with him by phone.
May disputes that he has any kind of vendetta against food trucks. Indeed, while working to open Monty's, he ate at some of the food trucks that counted North Broadway between Pine and Olive as a regular stop.
"We were open for almost a month before anything happened," he says.
Usually, the trucks parked at the south end of the block, by Pine. One day last week, two trucks parked at the north end -- directly in front of Monty's, blocking the temporary signage on which the restaurant is relying until a blade sign is attached to its building. May asked the trucks to move. One obliged; one didn't. He called the police. Once again this week a truck parked directly in front of the restaurant.
"We didn't care that they were on the other corner," he admits. Once they set up shop at his doorstep, though? "That, to me, was kind of offensive."
Asserts May, "Once we called the police, it opened the floodgates" to other restaurants complaining about the trucks' proximity.
As it turns out, while Monty's tolerated the trucks parked at the other end of the block, the restaurant would have been within his rights to complain all along. Food trucks receive a map from the city showing where they can and can't park based on the 200-foot rule. The entire block of North Broadway between Olive and Pine is off-limits.
May dismisses one of the main assumptions that seems to be driving the anti-restaurant backlash in this dispute: "I don't fear any food trucks opening." He points out that, food trucks notwithstanding, he knowingly decided to open a new sandwich joint not very far from Pickle's Deli, the popular Central West End deli that launched a second location at Olive and Seventh in May. He believes how Monty's operates -- roasting all of the meats for its sandwiches, corning its own beef -- will set it apart.
"We open the restaurant in this economy. That's kind of crazy. We want to give people some jobs, create a business that's going to be around, give [customers] what they can't get anywhere else. It's a win for everyone."
Instead, May and his team (and other restaurants in the area) find themselves suddenly cast as anti-competitive, anti-food ogres. "It's a shame," he says. "It's frustrating.
"As a business owner, you get a set of rules. You pay the taxes, you feed the meter."
Cry foul when someone asks you to do the same in kind?
"That's hard for me to accept."