Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Matter Of Taste

The New York Halal Food cart, North Pleasant Street

Most small business owners would agree that competition is a healthy thing, because when products compete they get better.  At the same time, however, most small business owners would prefer their competition die an instant unhealthy death.

So it comes as no surprise -- especially in this treacherous economy -- that some downtown restaurant owners don't like the idea of a couple of competitors rolling into town every morning and setting up shop for the day, selling relatively cheap hot food to customers on the go. 

Kind of like the Athenian fleet outmaneuvering and mercilessly pounding the larger lumbering Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis.

But is that really direct (unfair) competition with our bricks-and-mortar establishments, who pay (or the owners of the property who pass it along) the ultra high $20/$1,000 valuation tax rate, plus the additional extra overhead of a Business Improvement District tax? 

Chance are the people who grab a quick bite to go were not about to spend the time and extra money for a fancier sit down meal anyway, so probably not.  This tempest in a teapot has arisen numerous times over the past thirty years and usually goes away when winter sets in, making outdoor dining far less hospitable.

The street vendors pay for their town license, pay for the gas to get to their location and run the generators and,  mainly, put in all the time necessary to make it work.

If the town is going to limit those food cart licenses as a form of protectionism, then perhaps they should also think about limiting the number of taxi business licenses sold (now at nearly a dozen) as cutthroat competition has led to maintenance short cuts and bottom of the barrel drivers providing unsafe driving conditions for customers.

As long as the business playing field is level, then let the unmerciful market decide.


Adam Sweet said...

How do they get permission from the town for this? Is that a busking permit? Do they get it from the police dept or town hall? I ask, because my wife is a sushi chef. We've often talked about opening a sushi restaurant in town, but the cost of rent is too high. Something like this makes a lot of sense because there's no overhead. She'd show up with a cooler and some freshly prepared sushi and stay until she sells out.

Anonymous said...

@Adam: I believe it's a $100 permit from Town Hall.

I totally welcome this development, by the way; sometimes you just have a craving for a quick meal, without having to go to a sit-down place, and food carts fill that niche for me quite nicely. It's cheap, it's quick, and it's often very good. Having lived in Austin, TX before I have often wondered why Amherst didn't have a thriving food cart scene, as they were extremely well-loved by the student population in Austin. (I just need a taco truck now, and my life would be complete again :) .)

Also, as far as the complaining restaurants go: if they feel like they're driven out of business by a food cart, they should probably do some soul searching and take a good look at the food they've been serving for years, because if a food cart can beat that, the restaurant owner should probably start looking for a different line of work. I'm all for letting the market decide on this issue.

Anonymous said...

This isn't about fair competition, this is about cherry picking. So for 50 cents an hour you can tie up much needed parking spaces and then roll on out of town. You work 11-3 and contribute $2 via parking meters. Meanwhile, the restaurants are losing much needed business. How long does it take to get permits for a restaurant in Amherst? Months! Meanwhile you are paying rent. Then you spend $100,000+ to outfit your restaurant to serve people year round. See how many food carts there are in the dead of winter. What are these carts returning to the town that keeps the schools funded, the streets paved and plowed? You are always railing that we need more commercial business to take the tax burden off of homeowners. Well, then the businesses that cover that burden need protection against squatters.

Larry Kelley said...

Well if you can't beat 'em join them.

What is to stop Judie from spending a lousy $100 to take out a permit and set up shop in front of her own restaurant? (which I believe she did on the night of the BID Downtown Block Party).

Her popovers would sell like, umm, hotcakes!

Anonymous said...

Sure. All the restaurants should just take up all the existing parking spaces with their own carts. Yeah, that sounds logical.

Marquis Hunt said...

I think that for the tax situation there is a slight unfairness, given the easy access to traffic for people walking. Looking at a 90 degree angle to multiple places vs. seeing one truck right in view is a huge advantage.

It is weird because I know people who have been trying to get carts out here for years and there have been some zoning impediments but seems like the two new trucks (and there was another during the Kendrick market during the Summer) came through pretty smoothly.

I would say they should have a daily outdoor vendor tax. Not even just for equalizing with businesses, but if the lack of taxation gives street vending a good nod, you'd probably see a proliferation of trucks, and then maybe similar issues that are now occurring with the taxi expansion issue in the town.

At the same time, once a suitable tax could be put in place, there probably shouldn't be any noise about these trucks. The Halal food brings a good service that isn't really competing against anyone; maybe Moti if anything else.

And the burger spot near the common; maybe White Hut can take up the issue of competition but sure that J's Tavern isn't losing business from the truck's existence.

These businesses also are going to struggle during the winter moreso than indoor restaurants (that also can still accrue revenue via delivery services). Other than possibly creating a daily taxation for their service or possibly contributing a portion to the BID I don't see much of a problem.

Anonymous said...

Why don't they set up in the mall parking lot? Oh, that's right, they'd be evicted.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see what Larry would have said if a mobile health club pulled into the prime parking spots in front of his athletic club every day. As I remember, he complained plenty about the cheaper competition across town as it was.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember you complaining loudly about LSSE classes competing with your brick and mortar business.

Larry Kelley said...

Since that was thirty years ago, you have a good memory. But obviously you were not paying attention way back then.

What I complained about most vociferously was the UNFAIR competition of a tax exempt entity (which has about a 30% cost advantage over taxpaying entities) competing head-to-head with not just my business but also Hampshire Gymnastics and Amherst Ballet Center.

Our DPW has the capability of paving driveways, cutting lawns and landscaping gardens at a reduced cost to homeowners but Taylor Davis and other taxpaying private entities would be very unhappy about that.

Made all the worse because in my case thirty years ago (or Taylor's hypothetical case today) as homeowners you pay exceedingly high property taxes to the town and then they turn around and use them to compete with you.


No Pillar of Defense for Ponziville said...

If Ponziville jackals turn against the Halal cart guy, all he'd have to do is throw on a Keffiyeh.

Problem solved.

Larry Kelley said...

And I specifically shot my photo from the exact opposite angle to show that he does not take up any parking spaces.

Larry Kelley said...

Opposite of the Gazette that is, in their Chicken Little sky is falling article.

Anonymous said...

Halal. How many people know what that is and how many of them would be cool with it.

I guess Progressive outrage (activism) is selective (politically correct).

~Bill R

Anonymous said...

Have you tried the food at the Halal cart? Its delicious with good portions and for five bucks a plate! I'm sold. I'd rather go there than to pay the outrageous prices that the establishments in Amherst charge for mediocre food. Furthermore, it is so typical of this town..."We welcome anyone and everyone...unless it is competition!" If you don't want to pay the overhead, then git yo' self a cart!

Anonymous said...

How hygenic do you think these carts are? Don't kid yourself.

Tom McBride said...

I'm not crying at all that the character of Amherst is changing. If some people can't handle the competition, let them move their business somewhere else. And I don't know how John Musante feels about the food carts, but if he wants to keep a country club atmosphere in the town, he's wasting his time. I just wish he'd take a job in Connecticut and leave us. These managers never really have any allegiance to their town anyway. Allegiance to their paycheck, yes, the town, probably not.

Adam Sweet said...

I'm all for these carts. Have you eaten at a restaurant in Amherst lately? The service is slow, the menus are expensive and the food isn't that great. My favorite restaurant in Amherst was the Pinocchio over above the Coppermine that closed after Joanne's little fire there. The food was impeccable, the service was swift and friendly, the prices were fair.

I don't see anything like that in Amherst any more.

And since the Brewery left town, there's no real incentive to eat there any more.

Chinese food you can get anywhere. AmChi has too small portions, and the food is too salty. You have to eat real Chinese food in China to appreciate what I mean. No point in paying those prices for mediocre salty food.

Stormin Norman said...

When I was a student back in the day I only went to restaurants on a rare occasion. The location was inconvenient for some, and the food was never beyond alright. I say let these little guys take a chance; Amherst is all about minority protections, isn't it?

Captain said...

I thought I'd re-send it , just in case it didnt get thru....

I own a few retail stores in town but I am not in direct competition of these food trucks. I do really like the texture that they add to our town but parts of their present’s dose feel a little unfair.

As a business in Amherst we are asked to support a very large number of events for our town. At any given point we have a ½” thick pile of papers asking for money and gift certificates from most umass clubs, all the elemental school fundraisers, sports teams (little league, lSSE basketball, the high school swim club …. ect) , plays, the library, yearbooks and many many more. Often these requests are made with a feeling that we owe it to our town to support everything that our customers are involved in. Because we feel that this is our town, we give as much as we can. We are part of the town.

So not only do the brick and mortar stores and restaurants in Amherst pay property taxes and fees (health department, weights and measures, vicar license, business license, ect) but we also support the towns events and culture. Transient venders do not. Do you see any food truck’s name on your kids sport team shirts?

As spoken here there is the option for a brick and mortar restaurant to have their own food truck out in front. So now they will have all the overhead of a store front and the cost of a truck. How much to you think the food is going to cost the customer? Not $5 a plate like a current food truck, I’m sure.

Anonymous said...

The carts are not taking up any parking spots and they clean up after themselves. Walk by there at night when they are gone and there is no trace of food left behind.

If people want to complain about vendors go after the tale venders selling the necklaces and carved wood statues. They are taking up 1-2 parking spots a day with they white vans and when their tables are set up it is hard to walk by if people are stopping to look at their items. And they are taking away potential business from the Toy Box, M & M Links and The Blue Marble.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps they should limit the number of taxis? Huh?

It's not about limiting the number of restaurants, it's about limiting the number of businesses that compete on an unlevel playing field with local restaurants. All the taxis compete on an equal basis.

Anonymous said...

The people supporting the food trucks aren't seeing the people behind the local restaurants. Take La Veracruzana, for example. He promotes his restaurant in newspapers and on the radio that helps pull people downtown, pays rent, and runs a nice eatery that employs people yesr round. Why should someone be able to park in front of his business and sell the same burritos and tacos that contributes none of that?

Anonymous said...

This town needs a serious reality check and as long as we have the nitwit selectboard with private interests, amherst will always operate in the best interest of a chosen few than for the people.

Amherst needs a mayoral form of government, not some overly paid town manager who has as much loyalty to this town as a McDonald's teen worker does to McDonalds.

Dr. Ed said...

It strikes me that there are three issues here.

First is sanitary code -- and in MA the inspection of both restaurants and food carts goes to the town. And I believe that (absent alcohol license) the restaurants actually pay less in an annual licensing fee than the carts do.

Second, food carts are supposed to have a home base where they are cleaned daily -- with hot running water and the rest. A physical residence or business that is also paying property taxes.

I believe I saw the Halal Cart parked in Stadium Storage the other night and that would be an issue for the Board of Health to deal with -- but the Board of Health.

Third, headline should read "Rich Amherst Folk Screw UM Students Yet Again." This is a issue of social class and folk who can afford to eat in a resturaunt with frequency are going to want to do just that, not eat on a streetcorner. By contrast, those who can afford neither the time nor money are going to either purchase from these carts -- or drive (producing all that toxic carbon dioxide) down to McDonalds.

You folk seem to think you can keep your captive audience forever and you can't. Someone at UMass might actually be student friendly enough to permit the carts on campus and then all will be lost....

Amherst restaurants can't hold a candle to the ones in Northampton and everyone knows it...

Dr. Ed said...

The people supporting the food trucks aren't seeing the people behind the local restaurants. Take La Veracruzana, for example. He promotes his restaurant in newspapers and on the radio that helps pull people downtown, pays rent, and runs a nice eatery that employs people yesr round

And why the hell should I care?

The man is, I presume, of reasonable intelligence and able to make rational decisions as to how to make money and is doing all of the above for his own gain.

He has a "nice eatery" which he advertises and hires people to work in because he makes money doing so! The people coming to eat in his restaurant are going to be eating in his restaurant regardless of who is selling what elsewhere.

THINK for a minute folks -- most of the Amherst restaurant trade is either (a) parents taking students out for a good meal, (b) guys taking girls out on a nice date, or (c) couples splurging together, or one partner treating the other.

So take the date example because we have all been there (even the gays & lesbians) and you've got this person whom you are trying to impress and she has agreed to go with you -- and you may have drive a half hour or more, fought through downtown Amherst traffic and found a place to park -- and you are planning to have a meal and a conversation and possibly build a relationship.

Are you really going to turn around and say "hey, lets save a few bucks and buy the food here and eat it in the car instead."?

Or, conversely, you are the person being taken on the date. You have put on your good clothes, spent time looking good, and are interested in seeing how this person treats you. What exactly would you think were he to do this?

Now if the food or service in the actual restaurant totally sucked, if there was an incredibly long wait and you didn't expect to get a table you liked anyway, THEN the food cart becomes the lesser of two evils.

But otherwise?

And the parents -- they want a chance to converse with their children which is why they are taking them to a restaurant and not McDonalds (which now relocated, they can get to a whole lot easier...).

But back to my initial question. Why the hell should I care about the people behind the restaurants (or *not* care about the people behind the food carts)?

Why should I care? How does their financial gain benefit *ME*?

Dr. Ed said...

Let's look at this a different way.

The price of lobster today is roughly what it was in the late '70s. Back when gasoline was 50 cents a gallon, etc, etc, etc.

So why don't we have the government set a minimum (wholesale) price of $50/lb for lobsters? Or $150-$200 for the two lobsters served in a lobster dinner which would push that up to about $250 or more all told.

And to the people who say they can't afford it, we say "too bad."

That is exactly what you are doing here -- other people are benefiting but you are creating artificial monopolies to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Anonymous said...

The point is do you have a better town when you have more empty storefronts or worse? I say worse. Towns do all kinds of things to protect their small business, such as banning big box stores. In this case they needed to be protected from travelling stores that pay no rent or taxes.

Anonymous said...

So the poor must subsidize the rich.

Welcome to the People's Republic of Amherst....

Dr. Ed said...

If we want to talk protectionism, how about the ULTIMATE protectionism - a limit on the number of students that UMass can admit.

Oh, no, faculty would loose jobs, restaurants wouldn't have customers, and the rest. And the slumlords wouldn't have victims to rent to.

And UMass wouldn't be the place of cut-throat competition between students over scarce resources that it currently is.

But no, we only are concerned about the interests of the few, not the many....

Dr. Ed said...

And while we are at it, Larry -- why don't you request copies of the Board of Health's inspection of the various restaurants in Amherst?

Just saying....

Anonymous said...

Guess all you liberal bleeding heart Obama voters have never heard of free enterprise. If the food trucks do better than the restaurants, then they may have to rethink their restaurant. If someone has a better product than you do, well, improve your product. And if the Amherst rent is too high, then leave. Eventually the rentors will have to rethink the rent.

No, no. Let's tax them into not being able to operate at all. Just get the government involved, so they can really screw up the system.