Mobile food carts increasing, resentment rising in downtown Amherst
Inside the custom-built trailer that she parks on South Pleasant Street four days a week, Paris Valley is a one-woman operation, grilling up orders for waiting customers on the sidewalk.
Paris & Ty’s barbecue arrives on the street Thursdays through Sundays by 11 a.m., when Valley places an “open“ flag over the window and works until 3 p.m.
“I love what I do … and it pleases me to see people really like it,” Valley said.
At the other end of downtown each weekday, Monday through Friday, the proprietors of New York Halal Food set up on the sidewalk in front of the Unitarian Universalist Church on North Pleasant Street.
Standing next to their portable kitchen, co-owners Elsayed Abdelglil and Ahmad Elsayed fire up several cooking surfaces around 10:30 a.m. and begin preparing the meals that include chicken and lamb gyros and several rich dishes. They finish up at 8:30 p.m.
“This is New York style. It’s designed to be on the sidewalk,” Elsayed said.
For Amherst College’s Homecoming Weekend, Gail McLaughlin-Toti’s Bite Me Please food cart served a Lord Jeffery Amherst special made of Monterey Jack, diced apple and fig on sour dough bread, part of a rotating menu of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.
These are three of four proprietors who have permits to operate mobile food carts on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Amherst. Both Paris & Ty’s and New York Halal Food began serving Oct. 11, while Bite Me Please arrived in late spring. The fourth is Happy Hour Hot Dogs, run by Matthew Rathburn of Worcester.
While there has long been a demand for such permits, most have been for smaller, more casual operations, such as college students selling hot dogs to late-night weekend crowds.
These new food carts are more elaborate, virtual stainless steel kitchens on wheels, and are raising questions about whether a growing number will hurt traditional restaurants that have been the backbone of the business community.
The matter prompted the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District recently to issue a joint statement.
“… the direct competition with our downtown restaurants who are paying rent in Amherst’s main commercial district is, in our view, unacceptable and creates an unfair advantage for the mobile carts,” they wrote. “We have asked for a meeting, accepted by Town Hall, to address the issue and hopefully work toward a resolution.”
Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Chamber, said the lower-priced, grab-and-go options should be viewed as more than a passing fad.
“This is where things are trending,” Maroulis said. “Now that we have seen four come in, before we have 40, let’s have a policy.”
The problem from the Chamber’s point of view is that these food vendors can enter the Amherst marketplace simply by paying a $100 fee to the health department for inspections, securing a state peddler’s permit and getting approval from the Select Board.
“In general, I’m pro food cart,” Maroulis said. “But a main commercial district is not where you put them.”
He points to Austin, Texas, where the city has a specific location for such carts, away from the other restaurants.
Business Improvement District Executive Director Alex Krogh-Grabbe, striking a more conciliatory tone, said the vendors can fill a niche if they are providing different food choices. He also noted that some could eventually evolve into full-fledged restaurants.
Those who operate say they do their best to respect other restaurants, including not parking directly in front of them.
“We’re away from the other restaurants,” Elsayed said. “Let them do what they do and we’ll do what we have to do.”
Elsayed and Abdelglil said they chose their spot because there is plenty of room for customers to gather without interfering with passersby. Abdelglil said he hasn’t heard any complaints. They plan to increase their hours to seven days week sometime next year.
McLaughlin-Toti said she has heard some comments about parking her cart downtown.
“I make a point of not parking in front of restaurants, but would be happy to partner with them in any way,” she said.
She doesn’t understand why there should be concerns.
“If you can’t take the competition, you shouldn’t be in the business,” she said. “These restaurants don’t have a lock on the public.”
Valley hasn’t been as fortunate in her reception.
Because she has to park on the street, and take up two spaces with the trailer and the vehicle that pulls it, she is required to fill parking meters.
“Some restaurants are calling the cops,” said Valley, pointing out that town has a prohibition on meter feeding to extend parking time beyond two hours. “They’re literally watching me when I come.”
This has led to frustration for both her and her customers, as when two hours are up, she must begin searching for new spaces, or else draw tickets from the parking enforcement officials.
“Sometimes there’s no parking so I have to go home,” she said.
Valley has sent a letter to the Select Board asking that meters be bagged for her vehicles, something she would be willing to pay for. “It is impossible for me to comply with (parking enforcement’s) request to move every two hours. To do so would totally destroy my right to exercise my license,” she said. “I don’t want to cause trouble.”
For Valley, coming to Amherst to serve food is a return to her hometown after extensive experience in the food business. She ran a barbecue and seafood restaurant in Pembroke, N.H., with her former husband before starting the food truck in 2008.
The 14-by-10-foot trailer took about a year to build, with help from vocational school students.
She is now a veteran of food festivals in New Hampshire, including in Manchester, N.H., and has parked at the Budweiser plant in Merrimack, N.H.
“I love going to the people instead of waiting for them to come to me,” Valley said.
Inside, she has a grill to prepare her food, with the most popular being a barbecue sandwich. She simmers the pork for 12 hours at 165 degrees, makes her own barbecue sauce and then makes each sandwich as it is ordered.
She has four sinks, a refrigerator, a cooler and plenty of preparation space. Occasionally her 7-year-old daughter, Ty, helps out.
Valley disputes the notion that she is at a competitive advantage, noting that overhead includes the high price of gasoline needed to drive the trailer from her home in North Amherst.
“I’m no different from them, except I’m mobile,” she said. “It’s just like a restaurant, except I’m allowed to be on the street.”
Elsayed and Abdelglil came to town from Jersey City, N.J., where they continue to live, on the advice of a friend who was a student at the University of Massachusetts.
They say business is steadily growing.
New York Halal Food’s 3-by-10-foot cart has grills, a steam table, a gyros machine, a burner for rice and a fryer. The cart is adorned with orange and yellow umbrellas and lights for nighttime service.
McLaughin-Toti of Longmeadow, who works as vice president of sales for a technology company, was traveling on the West coast when she noticed the prevalence of food carts.
“The more I looked at it the more I became intrigued,” she said.
She then put together an 8-by-10-foot stainless steel cart that rolled out this spring. Inside are four sinks and a 34-inch grill. She has three chefs.
The cart has been appearing mostly at farmers markets in Amherst, but also on the Amherst College campus and at private events and parties.
Amherst may be the first to see the rise of the mobile food carts in the area, but other communities will likely have them soon.
McLaughlin-Toti is already going to Holyoke and Springfield for events, and she was at the Brimfield Fair and the Hodge Podge Festival in Hartford, Conn.
Valley said she is seeking permits to bring Paris & Ty’s to South Hadley Mondays through Wednesdays, possibly setting up near the Mount Holyoke College campus.
Abdelglil said he is eyeing expansion to Northampton and the Boston area.
“At the end of the day you’ll find the community in general really likes us and we’ve been very well received,” McLaughlin-Toti said.