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Local merchants frustrated with City Hall’s food truck initiative

by Andrew McFarland
Contributor
Thursday Mar 29, 2012
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Come April 1, there will be a few new additions to the South End’s streets, but some eatery owners won’t be rolling out the red carpet.

"This is the first time it’s felt like the earth beneath me is shaking," said George Raei, the owner of Rome Pizza and the Tremont Street CafĂ© in Castle Square.

The source of these tremors? The approaching parade of food trucks that will soon be frequenting the corner of Berkeley Street and Tremont Street near the Benjamin Franklin Institute. After more than 15 years of doing business in the South End, Raei fears that these new competitors will overwhelm small businesses dealing with large overhead costs like rent.

"It’s gonna be unfair for the competition," said Raei, "This is gonna hurt us big time."

April 1 marks the beginning of the 2012 schedule for the Boston Food Truck Initiative, a City Hall operation to nurture the nascent food truck scene. While food trucks have become fixtures in Dewey Square and other Downtown locations, this season they will be spreading out into more residential neighborhoods. In addition to the Benjamin Franklin Institute location, food truck stops have been designated near Peters Park and Boston Medical Center.

Mobile, trendy, and backed by the City, Raei and his colleagues worry that the food trucks will soak up their student customer base.

"All of them are coming from the school. We all depend on the school," said Raei, referring to the Benjamin Franklin Institute across the street from both of his stores. With a food truck parked right outside of the institution’s front door, Raei worries that his clientele won’t bother crossing Tremont Street.

"A food truck doesn’t belong in an area like this," said Tasos Kalaitzidis, the owner of Billy’s Sub Shop on Berkeley Street, "I can see them in an area like Fenway where there’s 40,000 people there for a game."

The South End has much less foot traffic than previous food truck spots, said Kalaitzidis.

What’s most frustrating for small business owners is the process by which the sites were chosen. According to Kalaitzidis and Raei, no one from the City contacted them or any other nearby food businesses to include them in the decision-making process.

"Anyone who enters the area is going to be competition," said Edith Murnane, the director of Food Initiatives for Boston City Hall.

According to Murnane, a group of five to eight people representing different City Hall departments and offices chose this year’s new food truck stops. After they selected certain areas, they consulted institutions falling within a 100-foot radius.

"[Most business along Berkeley and Tremont Streets] are outside of that window," said Murnane.

Regulations set up by the Food Initiative aim to discourage direct competition with local eateries. Each day is broken into three shifts, and a food truck is only allowed to visit a specific site three times a week. Currently, only six of the possible 21 shifts for the Benjamin Franklin Institute location have been scheduled.

Eateries that have been up and running for decades underestimate their roots in the community. A food truck that’s on the street for a few hours a week can’t hold up relative to the dependability they offer, said Murnane. To curb direct competition, the City tries to curate sites so that a certain food truck’s menu doesn’t completely overlap with a nearby small business.

For Murnane, introducing food trucks will be an opportunity to generate some buzz and dialogue within the South End.

"We’re just in the midst of creating the rules of the road [for the food trucks]," said Murnane, "There’s always room for conversation."

Raei is more than ready for some conversation, if only City Hall would return his calls.

"We’ve been trying to call the City," said Raei, who has left more than six messages with Tabitha Bennett, the South End neighborhood liaison, without any response.

He has been planning with Kalaitzidis and the owners of Emilio’s Pizza and Georgiana’s to bring their grievances directly to City Hall later this week.

"We have to do something," said Raei, "This is really our life and bread. It’s gonna hurt us."

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