BY CATHERINE KOZAK
When I was an intern in the late 1980s covering the N.Y. State Legislature, I used to go outside every day on the Capitol square for lunch. The streets were lined with food trucks, serving all kinds of homemade fresh food. My favorite was the falafel and tabbouleh, but there were lots of other choices. As a lunch option, it was fast, cheap,delicious and healthy.
Over the decades since, food trucks have became all the rage and can now be found in practically every city and resort area. Some of the owner/chefs have become famous and rich. The genre even has been a popular feature on cable TV travel and cooking shows.
An Oct. 2016 article in Buzzfeed highlighted the top food trucks in North Carolina. Food offerings included tacos, BBQ, Asian dumplings and pho, pressed sandwiches, gourmet meats, grilled cheese, hot chicken, kabobs, gourmet burgers, and burritos.
But for a number of reasons, including zoning laws, food trucks are not something we see very often on the Outer Banks, unless it?s a special event. One notable exception is Eduardo?s Taco Truck on Ocracoke Island, which is parked by the Variety Store and has been a big hit with tourists.
Next month, the Dare County Board of Commissioners will consider recommendations that potentially could make it easier to run food trucks in unincorporated Dare County, which includes all of Hatteras Island, Colington Island, Roanoke Island and mainland Dare. It will not affect regulations on the trucks within the towns.
Steve and Sue Bonney, owners of Stu?s Donuts in Avon, asked the Dare County Planning Board earlier this year to address outmoded regulations that don?t allow them to operate their food truck. The planning board?s recommendations will be presented to commissioners at their Aug. 7 meeting.
The couple had purchased their truck with the intention selling hand-made donuts and gourmet hot dogs. The restaurant Ketch 55 Seafood Grill in Avon agreed to be affiliated with the food truck, a requirement of the state health department for mobile food units.
?Our unit had everything we needed,? Bonney said. ?We found out from the Planning Board that we did not have the correct zoning.?
After going back and forth with planners about getting the regulation changed, the couple moved the entire operation inside the restaurant for the time being.
Bonney said he plans to make the case to the Commissioners to update the zoning. ?We?ve had really good feedback so far,? Bonney said. ?We?ve had lots of support from the community. Folks here on the island have been in our corner.?
According to minutes of the July Planning Board meeting, six residents, including the owner of Ketch 55, spoke favorably about food trucks.
No restaurateurs on the island have expressed opposition to his food truck, he said. He is optimistic that the zoning update will let him go back to his original plan to operate out of his truck on the Ketch 55 property. Meanwhile, the couple is using the truck for their catering business.
One of the concerns about food trucks is that they create unfair competition for restaurants, which have much higher overhead than the mobile eateries. Although Bonney said he understands that viewpoint, the reality is that food trucks would offer different fare for customers. Since a mobile operation would have to have an arrangement with a restaurant facility, he said, logically the restaurant would not want direct competition.
Plus, it would fill a niche for the public. Judging by the incredible volume of hungry vacationers in the summer, and the often long lines at restaurants, there appears to be more than enough customers for such no-frills eateries.
?It sounds like we?re starting to step into the 21st century,? Bonney said. ?You?ve got variety. You?ve got something quick you can take away.?
Dare County Planning Director Donna Creef said that in discussions with Bonney, it became evident that some older zoning districts defined food trucks differently than newer districts.
Changes the planning board is recommending, Creef said, include amendments to definitions of food trucks ? food vending designed to be moved ? and food stands ? an establishment that serves food, but provides no more than seating for eight people ? that make them consistent with newer zoning districts and state definitions. All mobile units, she added, would be subject to health department regulations and site plan approvals. The proposed changes would have no impact on the operation of ice cream trucks.
Creef said that she has received ?a fair amount? of phone calls from people who are interested in operating what are officially known as mobile food units.
?Food trucks are growing in popularity throughout North Carolina and throughout the U.S.,? she said. ?This is not something we?ve done without the benefit of any thought, or that?s just a knee-jerk reaction.?
After the Planning Board submits its recommendations, the Board of Commissioners has the option of scheduling a public hearing on the matter at a future meeting. Only after the hearing can the commissioners vote on whether to accept the recommended zoning change.
?We will find out at the public hearing whether the public wants this,? Creef said of the food trucks. ?People seem to want an alternative. Based on my research, they?re extremely popular.?