Friday, February 3, 2023

Fireworks to firestorm: Food trucks removed from DoG St July 4

Chef Jim Kennedy (foreground) and sous-chef Garrett Bartlett (background) prepare food in the FoodaTude truck July 7, 2016. (WYDaily file photo)

At 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jim Kennedy and his Foodatude truck were sitting on Williamsburg’s Duke of Gloucester Street. He had passed safety inspection with the Williamsburg Fire Department and was preparing for a busy evening of serving food to hungry Colonial Williamsburg guests as they enjoyed fireworks.

By 7:30 p.m., Kennedy was driving his truck home, having lost more than $1,500.

On a night meant to celebrate American independence, a form never filed, a phone call from a rival business owner, an order from the City Manager and an escort from police left Kennedy and two other food truck owners in the red– and a city government grappling with its new food truck policies.

Shortly after 7 p.m. on July 4, after a city safety inspection and hours of serving food, Foodatude, and food trucks Two Drummers Offbeat Eats and Suck on This BBQ, were asked by city fire personnel to relocate within the Revolutionary City because a special event permit had not been obtained by Colonial Williamsburg.

The contract with Colonial Williamsburg that Jim Kennedy and TJ Cavaliero signed. Near the bottom, the letter indicates Colonial Williamsburg had secured a conditional permit from the city. (Courtesy Heather Cavaliero)

“In preparation for this year’s Fourth of July programming, Colonial Williamsburg inadvertently neglected to submit a special event permit application to the city for the operation of food trucks at the event,” said Joe Straw, Public Relations Manager for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “This was an oversight… We have updated our internal procedures to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

According to city code, a special event permit issued by the city is required for Williamsburg businesses to host food trucks on their property. The tax rate for food trucks at special events was changed by City Council in April, making events affordable for mobile food vendors.  

Without the special event permit, the trucks were operating illegally — even if they were unaware they were doing so.

“They did pass inspection,” city spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said of the trucks. “The problem was Colonial Williamsburg, as the event organizer, should have applied for and received a special event permit, which they did not do.The permit was never applied for, and so we did not approve it.”

Both Kennedy and Suck on This BBQ owner TJ Cavaliero shared the contract they signed with Colonial Williamsburg, which said CW had received a conditional permit from the city to host food trucks July 4. 

The order to move the trucks came from City Manager Marvin Collins, after he received reports around 5:15 p.m. that the trucks were present on Duke of Gloucester Street.

After having city staff verify there was not a special event permit, Collins said he directed the Williamsburg Fire Department to relocate the trucks, with an escort from police.

“How damaging do you think that was to my business, being escorted out by police and closed down in front of all those people?” Kennedy asked. “It made us look like we were criminals and did something wrong.”

The food truck operators were offered locations on Blair and Nicholson streets, locations Collins said he chose because the city had previously allowed food trucks there when granting Colonial Williamsburg a special event permit for Grand Illumination in December.

Kennedy said he moved to Blair for a short time before calling it a night, as there were few people to sell food to in the new location.

According to Hartmann, the reports to the City Manager’s office came from Adam Steely, chair of the city’s Economic Development Authority and co-owner of Merchants Square restaurant Blue Talon Bistro.

“As a business person here and chair of the EDA, I can tell you we are anxious to have food trucks in this town,” Steely said.  “The last thing we want is any business to struggle unnecessarily or be put through hoops in licensing and permits that are onerous.”

Steely added, “That said, rules are rules, and you can’t enforce the rules here and not there.”

City code allows the city manager to issue special event permits on the spot — which Collins said he did by allowing the trucks to remain in Colonial Williamsburg. Kennedy said he believes the right decision would have been to issue the permit to allow the trucks to continue serving on Duke of Gloucester, and review policy the next day.

The location on Blair St. where Jim Kennedy and his FoodaTude truck were relocated July 4. (Courtesy Jim Kennedy)

However, Collins said via email Duke of Gloucester itself was the primary reason for the decision to relocate.  

As a “street of national renown,” Collins said the city and its visitors are sensitive to the aesthetic views on the street.

“The secondary reason for moving the food trucks was that they were not really necessary in that location,” Collins said. “There are existing businesses and restaurants within an easy walking distance that visitors could purchase food and drinks.”

“It is not equitable for a mobile business to set up in the public right-of-way,” he added. “In close proximity to a business that pays rents and other costs to sale equitable wares without proper advance consideration.”

While DoG Street is indeed city property, in an email to Collins that was shared with WYDaily, Kennedy said he believes the decision was favoritism for the city’s brick and mortar restaurants.

My confusion is if there were no special event permits for DOG Street, were there special event permits for Francis or Blair Streets?”  Kennedy asked Collins. “If not, it seems the entire issue was Mr. Steely and the Everett Group may have had issues of the location of the mobile restaurants, and perceived us as a threat to business.”

Steely said that there is no “demonstrated need” for food trucks in Merchants Square, where several dining options already exist. He said hosting food trucks further down DoG Street would be a good way to accommodate guests’ need for food and beverage.

Whatever the guests’ needs, to the food truck operators, July 4 was a missed opportunity for their businesses.

“I could’ve said no. I had two other offers for gigs in Richmond and I’m sure I would’ve made two grand there,” said Cavaliero of Suck on This BBQ.  “Instead I decided to stay in town and got screwed over.”

Jim Kennedy said he and his fellow food truck operators originally set up shop on Duke of Gloucester street, as directed by Colonial Williamsburg. This was the view from his truck’s location on DoG street. (Courtesy Jim Kennedy)

Kennedy said he purchased 240 pounds of shaved ribeye as well as specialty bread and cheese for the Independence Day event. Cavaliero said he spent two days smoking 180 pounds of barbeque meat, and his wife took a half day at her day job to help him on the truck.

Now, instead of filling hungry bellies, most of their ingredients will go to waste as sunk costs.

Both Kennedy and Cavaliero said the incident demonstrates the city’s need to rethink its food truck policy. They agreed York County is far more profitable turf for food truck operators than the city.

“The City of Williamsburg is not very receptive to trucks to begin with,” Kennedy said. “They have limited spaces we can go and the inspections are onerous.” 

Cavaliero said he often brings his BBQ truck to events in Richmond, where he receives money from event organizers on slow business days. Steely said he understands the frustration of the food truck operator, and even suggested they seek compensation from Colonial Williamsburg.

Kennedy and Cavaliero both hope for some reimbursement — and they also hope City of Williamsburg officials will relax restrictions on mobile food vendors.

“They want food trucks, but they want to dictate what the food trucks do,” Cavaliero said. “The biggest thing they need to overcome is ignorance. They haven’t done their homework, but they know this isn’t some passing fad. It’s a trend. Food trucks are huge everywhere but here.”

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