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Why the great (Raleigh) food truck debate is bullshit

January 26, 2011 2 comments

How popular are food trucks?  Google the term, and you’ll get just over 27 MILLION results.  In 0.16 seconds.  The Food Network had a contest, and show about them.  Durham has Only Burger, the first place I had a fried green tomato and pimento cheese burger (brilliant, in case you were wondering).  Yeah, any reasonable person will tell you they are wildly popular, the new new thing, as evidenced by the selection of the shiny and earnest Tyler Florence as host of the Food Network show.

But food trucks are not popular everywhere, with everyone.

Today in Raleigh, there was a “hearing” of sorts on the advisability of food trucks downtown; apparently they are currently verboten.  I read about it over at spoonfedraleigh, where there was a nice summary of the positions of people on both side of the issue.  Since there didn’t appear to be an opportunity to comment over at spoonfed, I figured I would use my own blog to comment on the debate.

Because most of it is bullshit.

Here’s what’s legitimate: safety concerns.  Pedestrian safety, diner safety, worker safety.  But here’s the thing – we already have laws about all of those things.  Trucks are currently not allowed to run over pedestrians.  Food purveyors must comply with established standards that assure food safety, today.  And last time I looked, OSHA still mandates conditions for workers.  It doesn’t matter whether the restaurant is on wheels.  Or not.  If there is some aspect of current safety regulations that is inadequate because it did not anticipate mobile operators, then update it.  But once again, this looks like a case, by and large, where existing regulation is up to the task.

What’s not legitimate are calls for protectionism.

Things change.  All the time, in every industry.  New products supersede old ones.  Business models evolve to suit consumer preferences and leverage technology.  If these weren’t facts, we would still be buying our music on wax cylinders instead of renting it for our Zune players.  Change in business is as inevitable as the change of seasons.

And so is the resistance of the incumbents.

Cries of “Foul!” dominate the airwaves.  “I have so much investment”, “The new guys aren’t following the old rules”, and “Somebody’s gonna get hurt if we let this newfangled stuff gain a toehold” are the same tired refrain heard from every dying entrenched operator, in every industry vertical, since the dawn of time.  Scribes said it of printing press operators, I’m sure.  Horse sellers used it to frighten early adopters of the automobile.  And we all know the story of music, video and telecommunications in the last decade.  Go see how crowded your local Blockbuster is these days, so you aren’t too surprised when you see the “For Lease” sign in the window (maybe we should ban streaming video?).

Food trucks are the new Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.

But make no mistake: in no case does the government have any business determining which products, operators, or business models succeed, try as they might.  That’s the job of consumers.

At this point, you may be tempted to think I am a huge fan of food trucks.  Or worse, an enemy of brick-and-mortar restaurants.

The truth is I’m neither.  As a small business owner myself, I understand probably better than most the issues and emotions around this debate.  But as John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things”.  And the facts are that both models in this debate are here to stay, even while some restaurants will fail, regardless of their mobility.  And that the people who are deciding this issue are not the people who should be deciding this issue.

Most food trucks are bad restaurants on wheels.  Most restaurants are bad restaurants on concrete.  I generally favor a good meal of simple ingredients prepared with care in a mom-and-pop bistro setting.  But I’m not opposed to a great taquito obtained on the side of the road.  There is room for both in my world.

The choice is not (or should not be) up to politicians.  It’s up to consumers.

It’s simple, really.  If you don’t want food trucks, don’t buy food from them.  If you want more bricks-n-sticks restaurants, patronize them.  And in either case, persuade your friends to behave in the same way.  Because the ones that stay will be the ones with customers, and vice versa.

But don’t let some pointy-headed bureaucrat decide what your options are, as a consumer or a business owner.  Tell them to stick to their mandate, and assure the public safety.  And then they are to get the hell out of the way.

About us:
The author is an owner of Muddy Dog Roasting Company, a boutique coffee roastery in Morrisville, NC.  We are a brick-and-mortar establishment.  We also sell our wares on the road.  We compete with mega-corporations, and micro-operators in low-rent garage shops.  Our customers can go many, many places to obtain substitute products.  They choose us because the want to, and they can.  I fear the day when that choice is removed from them.  If you like great coffee from independent operators, and want to Stick it to the Man, please check us out:

http://www.muddydogcoffee.com

An OpenLetter about OpenTable

October 26, 2010 1 comment

As a recent convert to iPhone, I’ve been on a bit of a trial-and-error binge at The App Store, downloading many apps to find ones I like.  One of the apps I did find useful is OpenTable, a web-based restaurant reservation system.  I’ve found myself using it more and more lately, and uncharacteristically, I didn’t give it a second thought.

Until last week.  When I came across an incredibly open, thoughtful essay by Chris Cosentino, executive chef at Incanto in the Bay area (what did we do before Twitter?).  Chris explains in great detail, and exquisite prose, why Incanto has opted out of the OpenTable monopoly on online reservations, and why he thinks OpenTable may be damaging to restaurants.  If you make reservations through OpenTable, please read the essay.

Immediately after reading the article, I deleted my OpenTable app.  Then I decided that wasn’t quite right, it was an over-reaction.  I decided I will use OpenTable in the way they pitch themselves to restaurateurs – as a way of finding new (to me) restaurants, and making a first reservation.  An “incremental” reservation.  Any future reservations at restaurants I know will be made by phone.  This way, everyone gets what they bargained for.

The best coffee coffee on the web is at
http://www.muddydogcoffee.com

Categories: Restaurants, Websites Tags:

Some California Restaurant Reviews

October 18, 2010 1 comment

I spent most of last week in California, a state I love.  Among the many things I love about California, first and foremost is the food – California is generally a pretty easy place to be a foodie.  I tried a few restaurants that ranged from the expected (and I have high expectations), to the surprises – one positive, one not so positive.

 

Lunch - spring rolls, and beef pho (with tripe!)

 

My first stop in California is always for Vietnamese, pho (pronounced “Fa”) in particular.  There is something therapeutic about Vietnamese food for me – the combination of acid and spice, combined with textures ranging from soft, to chewy, to crunchy is just magical.  Now California is a little unusual in that it is comprised almost entirely of strip malls (the Bay Area, anyway), but those strip malls actually contain little gems of eateries.  And it seems that there is a mom-and-pop Vietnamese eatery in each one, most of them authentic and outstanding.  Pho Quyen 2 (I have no idea where 1 is) is no exception – located at 1185 W El Camino Real Sunnyvale, CA, they immediately satisfied my pho jones.  So well, in fact, that I ate two meals in a row there, and that’s saying something for me.  safe to say that they met my expectation for fast, inexpensive, healthy and delicious food.

As I headed north, I spent an overnight in Sonoma, land of magical vineyards, and restaurants with a reputation for excellence.  The Glenn Ellen Inn Restaurant was convenient to my hotel, the menu read well, and it had a terrific appearance.  I figured that in this location, at these prices, it would be at least adequate.  Well, I was wrong.  Basically, they made the food try too hard.  Everything was over-produced.  Complicated.  And not in a good way.  I ordered a pumpkin ravioli that turned out to be sweet.  I mean really sweet.  Maple syrup sweet.  At dessert, I order popcorn ice cream because it sounded novel and interesting.  I was told the ice cream was made with popcorn in it, which piqued my curiousity.  Unfortunately, it was served as a sundae, drowned in caramel and topped with caramel corn.  The ice cream could have been anything and I wouldn’t have been able to taste it.  Add all this to a disappointing wine list, slow (inattentive) service, and a big bill, and the result is a recipe for disaster.  After the fact, I realized I should have known better (and could have checked quickly) – Zagat users ranked it highly, which almost always means a place is run by no-talent hacks.

On the positive surprise side, I met some friend for dinner in Fremont.  Those who know Fremont will recognize it as a slightly dumpy industrial town populated with antique stores.  Not much hope for a decent restaurant.  My friends had me meet them at the Essanay Cafe, a European-style bistro that easily accommodated our adult tastes as well as their 4-year-old’s preferences.  I was pleased that my entire meal was “off-menu”.  Golden beet salad, lamb, and three-layer mousse was the prefect end to the trip.  If you’re in the South Bay, I recommend you check them out.

Need great coffee? Try
http://www.muddydogcoffee.com

Categories: Restaurants Tags: , ,

A taste of South India, right here in Morrisville

October 2, 2010 1 comment

Full disclaimer: Martin’s Curry Rice is a Muddy Dog Roasting Company (my company) customer.

But that doesn’t mean what I’m about to say isn’t true: Martin rocks the skillet with his new model of “make your own” curries at Martin’s Curry Rice in Morrisville, NC..

Chef Martin is from Bangalore, but hatched the idea for his new restaurant while traveling in Japan.  The Japanese have many little food stalls that churn out perfect curries, and Martin adapted the concept to the American market. The way it works is simple: pick your protein (meats, fish, egg), add the vegetables you like, then select the spice level of the sauce. The staff puts your skillet onto an induction plate where it heats fast, then your meal is served with white or brown rice.  Check out our meals tonight:

Spicy fish curry - it made even me break out in a sweat

Veggie curry in a mild sauce - even the spice intolerant of our family could enjoy

Chef Martin shops at the Western Wake Farmers Market to get ingredients, so you know that much of what you’re getting is local.  And as if that weren’t good enough, here’s the bill: Less than $40 to feed a family of four, and bring home enough leftover for at least one more serving!

Martin will soon be starting a South Indian brunch on weekends, which will feature our Mysore coffee.  Can’t wait for that to start!

Go check out Martin’s as soon as you can.

Want great coffee?
http://www.muddydogcoffee.com

Bless me, Father: I coveted my neighbor’s Cheese Whiz

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

My Pat's steak, dressed with a sorry excuse for Wiz.

I made a quick trip to suburban Philadelphia today; in between the PHL airport and my destination was one of my favorite Philly institutions: Pat’s King of Steaks.  OK, it wasn’t directly in between.  But it was a small detour.  And I haven’t had a Pat’s steak in a number of years, so I made it a point to indulge my craving.

For the uninitiated, Philly steaks are kind of like a sporting rivalry: who is best is a matter of considerable debate.  Heated at times.  And with no right answer  But I’ve always been a Pat’s man.  Probably because my mom is a Pat’s woman, and has been for 50+ years.  Any restaurant is business for over 70 years, with a menu that reads like, “Steak. Cheese Steak.  Pizza Steak.  Pizza Cheese Steak… etc etc etc) has got to be good.  And candidly, when I’m no longer in Philly, I can admit it: all the top contenders – Pat’s, Genos, Jim’s and more – are good.  Really good.

Anyone who knows what a Mummer is, eats Tastykakes (TastyKlair rules! Just sayin’), and still can’t quite fathom that John DeBella is on MGK instead of MMR will be able tell you the secret ingredient in a Philly steak.

It’s Cheese Whiz.  Yup, the one from Kraft.  In a can.  Take that, you Frenchies.

And “one Wiz Wit” is the way I’ve ordered my steaks my entire life.

Until today.

Because of the way we’ve radically changed our family diet the past couple years, I couldn’t bear the thought of eating Wiz today. (Yeah, it really is spelled different when you put it in the context of ordering a steak.  Don’t ask me why, it just is.)  So today, I did something I’ve never done before in my life.  I ordered mine with Provolone.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Provolone is a fine cheese.  An acceptable cheese steak cheese, in fact.  Nobody bats an eye when you order a steak with Provolone.  It’s OK, really.  And I ate it, and it was good.

But let me just say this to my Provolone steak: “I grew up on Wiz.  Wiz was my friend.  You sir, are no Wiz.”

It turns out that cheese (or artificial cheese food as the case may be) from a can has a place after all.  And that place is on a Philly cheese steak.  I’m sorry I strayed.  It won’t happen again.

What’s your favorite Philly steak?  Discuss!

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