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At least two restaurant owners downtown are ticked off at the Downtown Little Rock Partnership for its sponsorship of Food Truck Fridays, which they say will hurt their business on what are normally their busiest days.
Eric Tinner, who owns Sufficient Grounds locations along Capitol Avenue, and Matt Lile, owner of Lulav, are blaming the partnership for a big dip in business last Friday, the first Food Truck Friday at Capitol and Main. Lile said his business was down 31 percent from the previous Friday, and "I really believe [the food trucks] are directly responsible." Tinner said his business declined from the previous Friday at both his Sufficient Grounds locations (one at Union Plaza, close by the food trucks, and the other in the Metropolitan Bank building at 5th and Broadway) and that a survey he made of nearby restaurants showed a big drop in customers — U.S. Pizza by 30 percent and a Subway three blocks away down 23 percent.
"It's disappointing to see a group like the partnership ... support direct competition," Tinner said. "It’s hard for me to stomach the fact that my dues are going to this [project] that hurts my business."
Tinner said the food trucks "come in, cherry pick our business at the peak time of day and week and they leave ... what do they leave besides trash?" Unlike the mobile trucks, Lulav's Lile noted that he'd invested time and money in fixing up a dilapidated building on Sixth Street for his business, a move that has helped downtown.
Both business owners were irked that food trucks aren't regulated as strictly as restaurants, whose kitchens must submit to several inspections yearly by the state Health Department.
DLRP head Sharon Priest believes things will even out in the next two months as overflow customers, people who do not regularly dine out downtown, head to the brick and mortar restaurants. She said the DLRP has offered to print for restaurants fliers that tout discounts at the restaurants for distribution at the food truck site. But Lile said offering discounts to lure business away from the food trucks "frankly hurts us too."
Priest noted that there are "roughly" 10,000 people who work within a few blocks of the food truck area "who are looking for lunch at the same time." She said she considers the food truck project — which she said was designed to bring new people to Main Street — a trial. The DLRP has contracted with the Metropolitan Housing Alliance (Little Rock's Housing Authority) Fridays through June for use of the block where the three food trucks set up. Tomorrow's trucks include Royal Kabob, The Food Truck and an as-yet-undetermined third vendor; hours are 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Tinner, who met with the DLRP before the first Food Truck Friday to express his opposition to the idea, has suggested that the food truck site move around to lessen the impact on any one area downtown, an idea Priest said she'd take into consideration after June. "I can't help but think things will level out, myself. People were in line for an hour" last Friday, she said. One restaurant owner, whom she declined to name, told a volunteer the food truck overflow had helped business.
Priest said she's also told restaurants they can sell prepared food from carts if they like, an idea that Tinner scoffed at. "I don’t mind a little competition but in the end result, what is the message?" Tinner asked, that downtown restaurants aren't interesting?
UPDATE: Tinner has provided a list of the restaurants he queried and their sales:
Lulav -31 percent
Subway on Main -30 percent
Subway in Metropolitan Tower -25 percent
Sufficient Grounds Express -23 percent
Subway on 2nd -20 percent
Slicks -12 percent
Sufficient Grounds Cafe -12 percent
Cotija's -10 percent
Sports Page +25 percent (which Tinner attributes to the fact that the previous Friday was Good Friday, a non-meat-eating day)
U.S. Pizza closed early
He also included a note he has sent to the Downtown Partnership:
As you can see, the effects of the additional competition were far reaching. All restaurants reported that business was dead until 12:30 when back-ups occurred at the food trucks. There was spillover from the trucks due to their inability to keep up with demand, so the numbers could have been much worse. Also, to my surprise, Metro store experienced a 28% decrease in sales over the day before, and this is not even a restaurant!
All owners are eager to speak with you and find a compromise to the situation which has driven a wedge between the small business owners in downtown and the Partnership. Please don't assume they have been appeased though. In fact, they have now had their fears proven true in Friday's losses and are more determined that ever to stop this clear threat to their business. Mr. Patel who owns the Subway on Main St. told me that he was going to speak to the mayor and wanted to circulate a petition to end the practice completely. I find this interesting because the theory of the Main Street Revitalization is to help Main Street business grow, but he has suffered the greatest loss at 30%. There was also discussion from one owner that with the Partnership financially supporting this, that they felt powerless to compete and they are now considering a move away from downtown. Are we now not causing more harm than good?
There needs to be a change before this has catastrophic effects on the local restaurants.