STREET EATS

For Weekly SurgeMay 22, 2014 

Richard Myers in his food truck. Photo by Derrick Bracey for Weekly Surge.

There’s an old real estate adage that states only three things matter when buying property: location, location, location. And nothing is truer than in the world of restaurants. Pick the wrong location and watch your investment dwindle to empty tables and rotting produce. Another old saying goes, “this world is always turning.” Things are changing. Well, things are changing everywhere else but here in Horry County.

In the rest of America, adventurous restaurateurs are literally taking to the streets. Instead of investing in brick and mortar buildings with hopes that customers will come, chefs and cooks are putting together full-service food trucks and bringing their eats to the streets. But these aren’t the roach coaches of days gone past. No, this is award-winning food. This is foodie food. This is fresh and innovative takes on local favorites, hybrids of culinary masterpieces and infusions from far and wide cultures. To put it lightly, food trucks have become a phenomena.

But surprise, surprise, yet another thing that thrives and drives business is prohibited in our bassackwards neck of the woods. But that might change. A May 29 public hearing has been set for restaurateurs, potential mobile food truck vendors and the public to comment on the proposed regulations for a mobile food truck pilot program in Horry County, which is now looking like it will launch at earliest in the fall.

Like most of popular culture, the Grand Strand trails behind, but it’s better late than never because food trucks are blowing up. Every major city has already bought in. Jon Favreau wrote, directed and stars in “Chef,” a new movie about food trucks which also stars Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman and Sofia Vergara. There are TV reality shows about them. There are books being written about them.

In “The Southern Food Truck Cookbook,” Heather Donahoe writes, “Street food has been a mainstay in certain parts of the country for years. But during the last decade, the notion of street food now inhabits parking lots, festivals, and random streets throughout the South and is enlightening their diners to the culinary delights of mobile eateries.” But if you’re in Horry County the best you could get on the street are hot dogs, pizza or ice cream.

But this new program could give restaurateurs of Horry County the option to diversify, to go mobile, to not be tied down to one spot, to run their business with a sense of adventure. But how does it all work? And why haven’t we done it yet?

Rules of the Rodeo

The way it stands now, you need a vendors permit to operate even a hot dog cart in Horry County. But if you want to sell hot dogs during any of the bike rallies, you’ll need an additional permit which comes with additional permit fees. This new ordinance may allow food trucks to operate under a business license and be treated as a small business owner. This is a big “may.”

Surprisingly, the City of Myrtle Beach already allows food trucks. “In the past, we’ve had some food trucks that served the construction industry, back when we had a lot of new hotels being built, but I don’t think we have any at the moment,” says Mark Kruea, public information officer for Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach food trucks can prepare the food in the trucks and they operate under a business license. “They must be legally parked, either on public or private property, but they cannot camp out there,” says Kruea. “They must be serving customers, and then move on. They can’t operate a permanent business from a temporary location. These trucks are intended to be mobile, and they must be, once they’ve served their customers.”

In North Myrtle Beach, it’s a little trickier.

“If one owns a duly licensed restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, then you can operate a mobile food service out of that restaurant,” says Patrick Dowling, public information officer for North Myrtle Beach. “The key is having the license, land-based restaurant within the city limits.”

Meanwhile, in Surside Beach, food trucks are a no-no.

“Surfside Beach prohibits any mobile business,” says Debra Herrmann, town clerk of Surfside Beach. “But keep in mind, Surfside is only two miles wide. Anything outside of that limit would be covered by the county.”

And that’s what we’re dealing with here - proposed new rules for mobile meals dealers in areas of Horry County that don’t overlap within any of its city or town jurisdictions - in other words, the majority of the county’s 1,255 square miles.

“This ordinance would only govern Horry County,” says Janet Carter, the department head of Planning and Zoning for Horry. “It wouldn’t interfere with any individual city ordinances, inside of the county.”

The old ordinance appears to have been written by somebody’s grumpy grandpa.

You can only use non-motorized carts - Grandpa says, “Motors are too loud!”

You can only sell hot dogs, pizza and ice cream - Grandpa says, “Because that’s American food, damn it!”

You are only allowed to operate in commercial zoning districts - Grandpa says, “Stay out of my yard!”

You can only operate between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. - Grandpa says, “Go to bed!”

You have to set up in pre-approved locations with two parking places set up to operate – have you ever seen a grumpy grandpa not take up two parking spaces? You are also required to have a DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) OK and a business license, pay varying permit fees. And you’re not allowed within 75 feet of a restaurant’s entrance.

In With the New?

The new ordinance essentially brings Horry County’s rules on food trucks into this century by allowing trucks with motors and allowing menus to be controlled by the business owners. There are other provisions being examined like expanding operating hours to include late nights and early mornings. This could give food truck operators a chance to add a sect of new customers, such as third shift workers and the bar crowds.

“We wanted to start this slowly, so we’re approaching this new ordinance as something that hasn’t been done in the county,” says Carter. “This opens it up to trucks serving prepackaged food and preparing food in commercial zones.”

There might also be an extension of where the trucks can go. “There’s been an overwhelming response to opening up zones to office and industrial areas,” says Mary Catherine Cecil, a senior planner for Horry County. “This allows trucks to offer food to employees who can’t leave for lunch. Of course, they wouldn’t be allowed in residential districts.”

Paul Prince has been a Horry County District 9 Councilman off and on since 1983. He subscribes to the if-it’s-not-broke-why-fix-it idiom. “We already have regulations and ordinances in place for food carts and trucks when it comes to festivals and charity events and things such as that. We just don’t need this new ordinance,” says Prince.

“It’s a hard enough struggle for small businesses, like restaurants and cafes. We don’t need these food trucks driving around taking their gravy off the top,” he says. “Then there’s the traffic issue with setting up these café wagons curbside.”

So how did we get this impasse of opinions? It started when Horry County Planning and Zoning started receiving questions about food trucks. After enough questions, the staff organized the Food Truck Ad Hoc Committee. This committee sent out postcards and contacted anyone they thought might have interest in food trucks (DHEC, restaurants, the Culinary Arts Department of Horry-Georgetown Technical College, the press, etc.).

The committee organized a public input meeting that drew in 15 attendees. Out of those 15, nine were potential food truck operators. “We’ve seen interest from people who want to serve gourmet sandwiches, BBQ, seafood baskets, snowball cones and ice creams,” says Cecil.

Then in February, they put together an online survey. The survey resulted in 542 total responses with 94 percent reacting positively in favor of food trucks. There were more than 600 pages of comments with a majority of people believing food trucks could be a great economic opportunity, but there were also comments that food trucks shouldn’t be in direct competition with brick and mortar restaurants.

Which Way Do We Go?

So here’s how this thing is going to work from this point on – this Food Truck Ad Hoc Committee will have a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. on May 29 at the Horry County Government and Justice Center, 1301 Second Avenue, Conway. “This hearing allows the public to come and show interest in the program,” says Cecil.

It also allows members of the committee to hash out in a public forum the regulations they’re proposing for the year-long food truck pilot program. Some of these are more stringent than the preexisting rules – like a 200-foot buffer from other restaurants as opposed to the 75-foot current regulation. Other issues being laid-out for debate are a $150 permit fee, a limitation of 50 permits for the pilot year and background checks for all food truck employees.

Another important note to be discussed is a DHEC regulation that all food trucks need a home-base kitchen – a commercial kitchen that serves as a backup unit for cleaning and food preparation purposes.

And in regards to treating food truck operators like year-round business owners and not part-time vendors, Cecil says, “We’re still kicking around the idea of business licenses and permits.”

But here’s where your hands will go higher in the air. After the May 29 hearing, the committee will finalize a draft proposal and hand it up to the planning commission, who will approve or disapprove, and pass it on to the county’s infrastructure and regulation committee. There it’ll need to get three readings and be approved three times by County Council to pass as a pilot program. Along the way, it’ll have another public hearing.

“Hopefully, there won’t be much opposition. The Ad Hoc Committee wants to do it all correct, not rush it,” says Carter. “Because the county only meets once per month during the summer months and assuming all goes well, it could pass in six months.” So, there goes a summer filled with food trucks.

As far as opposition goes, Carter tells us the major concern is “brick and mortar establishments adhering to county regulations and having to compete with an entity with lower operating margins.”

Councilman Prince tells us the new ordinance will also lead to a snowball of expensive government interference. “I believe less government is best government, and there are always costs involved with these new regulations,” he says. “In state government, DHEC will need to go around and inspect all these new trucks, and they have a hard enough time inspecting what we already have, so they’ll need to hire guys, and that’ll lead to more taxes.”

But despite Prince’s objections, he tells us this movement’s momentum may be too strong. “I’ve got a gut feeling this thing is going to pass. Maybe it wouldn’t if restaurants and businesses came out to the county council to protest it,” he says. “There’s so much food around, people can get it anywhere. I understand the days of brown bagging our lunch are over, but we’re fat enough, we don’t need to haul food to people.”

Trucking the Coast and Beyond

But the cities surrounding us don’t seem to be held up with this many ordinances or regulations. Florence got in the game with Bistro To-Go. And recently, Flo-Town had a SMAC Truck (South Carolina Mac and Cheese) come and go. But hey, they gave it a shot on more than one occasion.

Our state capital of Columbia has even gotten in the act with not one but two barbecue bus-taurants – Size Matters BBQ Bus and Bone-In Artisan BBQ on Wheels. You can grab a fish taco or a burger at Pawleys Front Porch. Or you can stuff a stuffed chicken wing in your mouth at 2 Fat 2 Fly Wings.

Up north in Wilmington, N.C., it seems the food trucks come and go. But there are staples – the Catch truck features Keith Rhodes of Top Chef serving up crab cakes and Brussels sprouts, and the Flaming Amy's Burritos restaurant has an offshoot bus shoving just about anything into a burrito on-the-go. There’s also BBQ and burgers and innovative seafood dishes waiting along the streets of the Port City on any given day.

But perhaps no one has their culinary shit more together than Charleston. It’s no surprise the Holy City would harbor a cool cultural phenomena like serving gourmet food out of a truck. The city is a hotbed for foodies and known for supporting cultural developments. With that in mind, Charleston put together a food truck federation, which boasts, “The highest standards of professionalism and customer service. The Charleston Food Truck Federation accreditation stands for excellence in the street food industry.”

The federation combines to offer a diverse palette of delicacies, including BBQ, doughnuts, gourmet sandwiches, Caribbean, burritos, something called Tokyo Crepes, Geechee Island recipes and Carolina Creole – just to name a few. Four of Charleston’s food trucks were named among the best 101 food trucks in the country by The Daily Meal.

And here’s some more cool stuff about food trucks in our surrounding areas. You can jump on www.roaminghunger.com and see where more than a dozen food trucks are roaming around Charleston-proper and other close by cities, any time of the day, so you can get your mobile eat on. There are even times when a bunch of these trucks will rally together for a food truck rodeo. This is where they literally circle the wagons by bringing together all the food trucks in town for a fest on wheels.

Shawn Reese splits his time between Myrtle Beach and Washington D.C., working at the Library of Congress. He eats lunch almost every day at the food trucks parked at Federal Triangle, around Capitol Hill. His primary haunts are Lebanese kebab, cupcake and doughnut trucks. “You can Google any food plus D.C. food truck and they’ll have it,” says Reese. “There’s even a popcorn food truck with all kinds of popcorn.”

Some concerns shown on Horry County’s Food Truck Ad Hoc Committee’s survey was fear of health issues with trucks. To that, Reese says, “I eat from food trucks all the time, and I’ve never gotten sick. That’s another cool thing about food trucks. It’s a market that corrects itself. If you have bad vendors, they’ll weed themselves out fast by word of mouth.” When you live in a city with a thriving food truck industry, these trucks can become like your favorite restaurants, something to be shared. “Whenever my wife and kids are in the city, we have to eat at a food truck at least once,” says Reese. “You can eat the same-old-same-old, or you can eat food from around the world.”

Marc Chesanow, music instructor at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, N.C. and Coastal Carolina University, and his wife attended a wedding in Raleigh, N.C. that was catered by a food truck named American Meltdown. “It was a great idea. They brought the truck right up to the house and served gourmet sandwiches to a couple hundred people,” says Chesanow. “It was the perfect solution to catering.”

The next day, Chesanow and his wife went into downtown Raleigh for a food truck rodeo. “They had the streets blocked off. There were at least 50 trucks, from health food to BBQ to desserts. It was extremely cool,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of people understand what modern food trucks are capable of. They can do such elaborate food in those trucks.”

Not Just Spinning Our Wheels

And there seems to be a real positive buzz around the Grand Strand concerning food trucks. “I would love to see them in this area,” says Chesanow. “It would be great to see them up in the Little River area, where I live.”

In Murrells Inlet, in Georgetown County, Richard Myers has run a food truck for the last 12 years. Myers is the co-owner of Creek Ratz and the chef at Capt. Dave’s Dockside for the last 21 years. “I built and designed my truck around Georgetown regulations,” says Myers. “Keeping it clean and healthy and offering exciting food are the most important things.” Myers used to use the truck for catering parties and festivals. “This summer, I’ll park it along the Marshwalk,” he says. “In the past, we did tacos, but this year, we’ll be doing more Japanese-influenced foods.”

Myers tells us when he first got into restaurants in the area it was a lot easier and cheaper to invest in a brick and mortar business. “Now, it takes millions and who can afford that?” he says. “Food trucks give us chefs an affordable way to express our artistry. It gives us freedom. We can try different foods, change locations and change the food we serve to the different locations.”

Reese agrees giving food trucks the green light in Horry County would be beneficial. “Some foods would do really well here; BBQ, maybe seafood, tacos and burritos are always popular,” says Reese. “People just need to take the leap and get used to buying good food from a place that used to serve ice cream and shitty hot dogs, because once they’re used to the system, they’ll try more and more types of foods and associate good food with food trucks.”

When asked what kinds of foods Carter would like to see trawling around Horry County, she gives the government answer, “We’d like to see whatever the people of Horry County want.”

There’s a bit of more enthusiasm in Cecil’s response. “I’m hoping to see a wide variety of foods. We’ve seen a lot of different types of food proposed. That’s what is exciting about this process.”

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