Plans for indoor food cart tabled

The man who wanted to create RVA’s first indoor food cart has hit unexpected delays and has subsequently sidelined plans.

Update #1 — March 27, 2013; 10:56 AM

Michael Ng still wants to create an indoor food cart (see below) for local vendors, but he’s putting the idea on hold.

“I still want to do it,” Ng said inside Thai Corner, his Jackson Ward restaurant, but added “too much red tape was going on.”

The most nettlesome piece of red tape was a specific ABC requirement. Ng had entered negotiations with Aurora, a downtown nightclub, to use the club’s lunch-hour vacancy to amass roughly a dozen food carts under one roof.

However, ABC regulations stipulate that ABC license holders, like the Aurora, must be the only party operating within the ABC-approved business. Even if food cart vendors weren’t serving alcohol, their presence in Aurora would be unauthorized.

The only other space that Ng has been able to find without an ABC license (and, thusly, no operation restrictions) was the Cokesbury Building at the corner of Grace and 5th streets. Ng said owners of the property had agreed to fund roughly $400,000 in start-up costs for the indoor food cart, but wanted a five-year contract with Ng in return.

“It’s a long-term commitment that I’m afraid of,” Ng said.  

He’s now turned his attention to lining up four restaurants along the 300 block of N. 2nd Street in Jackson Ward. However, he maintains that he’ll help create an indoor food cart in Richmond someday.

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Original — December 20, 2012

If Michael Ng has his way, RVA will have an indoor food truck court next year. Not only will it likely be the city’s first food truck court held indoors, but it will be the first in Virginia. “I am treading on a gray area,” said Ng inside Thai Corner, his Jackson Ward restaurant. “I have an uphill battle to make things work.”

The idea came four months ago when Ng’s friend, Brandon Greene, had a thought: there are so many outside food truck courts–what if there was one inside? Ng liked the idea so much, he decided to create one.

An indoor food truck court has several upsides. Most apparent: it centralizes several individual carts. Instead of having to locate and travel to individual carts scattered across the city, customers can go to “one location with different food carts,” Ng said, and choose. Also, customers are sheltered from the cold and rain.

Another convenience Ng sees comes after people get their food. Most carts are grab-and-go. You show up, order food, and then leave with it. “There’s no seating area, no way to mingle,” Ng said. What he wants to provide is seating so that people don’t have to return to the office to eat. A group of co-workers, for instance, could travel to the indoor food truck court “split up and get [their] dishes and come back to eat,” Ng said. “Good food, cheap price, and convenience saturated in one little area.” That’s the goal.

However, a group of food carts operating in a closed area does present one chief concern: smoke build-up caused by multiple carts cooking simultaneously. Ng addressed the concern by saying that participating food carts would likely use induction cooking (“like a Chipotle,” Ng said) or cook food off-site (several existing food carts do this already). But where might an indoor food truck court go?

Aiming to cater to Downtown lunch-goers, the first location Ng scouted was Bliss at 10th and E. Main streets. Primarily a nightclub, Bliss has little-to-no mid-day operations, thus being able to host a lunchtime food truck court (and supplement its income by charging Ng rent). Lunchtime food carts would come in, set up, serve food, and then leave well before the nighttime crowds. However, Ng found Bliss too small. “It doesn’t have the food cart feel,” he said.

Ng then turned his attention to Aurora at 401 E. Grace Street. The 15,000 square-foot nightclub has an open floor plan that could easily accommodate food carts and patrons. Like Bliss, the club caters to nighttime crowds, allowing them to host the lunchtime carts. Ng said the owners welcomed the idea of being able to use the space during hours it wasn’t open. “This is an ideal spot to do this,” Ng realized. But would the City feel the same way?

Owner of Thai Corner, two food carts (each named Thai Cabin), and four businesses along the 300 block of N. 2nd Street in Jackson Ward, Ng knows how to do business with the City. He reached out to contacts at City Hall, who told him they liked the idea. Slowly, Ng began climbing the bureaucratic ladder, starting with the Health Department. “I wanted them to be on board” from the start, he said.

After the Health Department approved the idea, so did the Zoning Administration. When it got to The Department of Planning and Development Review, that agency also welcomed the idea.

Mark Olinger, Director of the Department of Planning & Development Review, said “Our take has been…food carts are incredibly popular.” Moving them indoors? “It’s something that I think is an interesting concept,” and one the City would welcome.

Discussions to create an indoor food truck court at Aurora progressed well. “We didn’t see major issues that needed to be addressed,” Olinger said. But discussions with the Virginia Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) slowed the progress.

Just before Ng and I chatted at his restaurant last week, he received an email from Olinger saying that the ABC had concerns about staging the food truck court at Aurora.

In discussions with Olinger, the ABC said that the only people that can operate in an ABC-licensed premise are the license-holders. So, food trucks (even with no intention of serving alcohol) could not operate in Aurora because the nightclub had its own ABC license. Ng was deflated by the news. “I think I’m back to the drawing board.”

Mark Olinger said that individual food trucks (each typically with its own business license) operating together under one roof is not a foreign business concept. Barbershops and salons, for instance, operate in a similar manner: individuals become certified or licensed, but work within an existing business, likewise certified. Food truck courts are not “an alien business model,” Olinger said.

The Director added that if Ng finds another location with proper zoning, creates an acceptable floor layout to accommodate both carts and customers, and operates within proper building codes (each of these very doable), there’s no reason why an indoor food truck court cannot be created soon. “I don’t see why they couldn’t find another location,” he said. As it so happens, Ng already has another place in mind.

At the corner of 10th and Main streets is a vacant storefront, “the place has been empty for a long time,” Ng said. Not only is there an open floor plan, ideal for a food truck court, but it’s absent an ABC license. “I’m determined to get this thing going,” he said. In addition to the city, he’s working with Karen Atkinson of GrowRVA, which manages several outdoor food truck courts in the city, to help facilitate an indoor location.

When a location is finalized and approved by the city, Ng said 13 food carts “are ready to roll.” Those carts include: Noodle Station, Chupacabra, Thai Cabin, Taste of India, among others. Ng also has aspirations to incorporate non-food vendors into a future location, among them satellite dry-cleaning pickup and drop off, phone repair, and shoe shining. Any potential vendors would be locally-based, Ng said. Even with the recent setback, Ng remains confident that the idea will materialize.

“It’s going to happen,” he said.

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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