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The debate over food trucks is really about the fight for customers

<p>Carefree Catering regularly parks outside the courthouse. PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>

Carefree Catering regularly parks outside the courthouse. PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE

Lunchtime at the Clark County courthouse. The crowd pours down the steps and into the midday sunlight. Courthouse regulars in power suits and laminated badges step with purpose toward their dining destinations. But their bewildered clients, who don’t spend much time at the Regional Justice Center, helplessly scan the glass walls of the office tower across the street, searching for food.

Their collective eyes settle on three options near the corner of Third Street and Lewis Avenue: a hot dog cart, the Courthouse Bar & Grill and the Carefree Catering food truck. A crowd begins to migrate to the food truck. As business picks up, a sizzling hiss rises from the mobile kitchen. The smells of cooking meat, cheese and spice spill out of the windows, where orders are taken and delivered.

Bob and Tammy Meyers are at the courthouse on business. They ordered lunch from the food truck, bypassing the restaurant and the hot dog cart. Why did they choose the food truck?

“Just look around,” Tammy says. “There are no restaurants.”

Her statement isn’t entirely true, but the area outside the courthouse certainly isn’t brimming with eateries, and the Courthouse Bar & Grill is pretty easy to miss, as is the Capriotti’s sandwich shop in the courthouse basement.

“It’s fast, easy and quick,” Bob Meyers adds. “And it’s the first thing we saw.”

Are they typical food truck customers? Yes and no. Bob eats at trucks several times a week, mostly at work, when he’s pressed for time. The older gentleman is not exactly the type of tech-savvy, cool-hunting hipster associated with the cutting-edge mobile cuisine of the modern food truck era. He’s just a guy who wants a burrito. And Carefree Catering is more than happy to oblige. The truck is nothing special, just a bright, clean truck with a dependable menu of Mexican and American classics.

But the truck belongs to the same class of businesses as Fukuburger, Roamin’ Dough and other mobile eateries that recently lobbied the Las Vegas City Council to block a proposed ordinance that would require them to stay at least 300 feet away from brick-and-mortar restaurants. That proposal, and another measure that would have established a 150-foot buffer, failed last week when the council tabled them. So food trucks can still go wherever they want. It is an issue that will almost certainly rise again as food trucks and restaurants vie for the pool of paying customers. But are they really the same customers?

Danaye, who only gave her first name, is a Carefree Catering regular. She patronizes the truck because she likes the employees and the food. If it didn’t park in front of the courthouse, she wouldn’t take her business elsewhere, she said.

“If I didn’t eat here, I wouldn’t eat,” she said.

Bob Meyers likes food trucks, but he and his wife also like eating at restaurants. Still, he said, it’s a pretty clear decision to eat at one or the other. When he and his family go out to eat, they go to a restaurant, with proper tables and multiple courses. Even if his favorite food truck drove past, it wouldn’t change his destination.

“Restaurants are much better when you’re going out with your family,” he says.

The food truck revolution has turned the vendors into destinations, especially at events like Vegas StrEATS, which brings together food, drinks and music in a central location near the El Cortez. Food truck owners say such events bring crowds that spill over to nearby businesses. The trucks that park next to each other certainly don’t complain about the increased competition. Some of the cutting-edge trucks have hardcore fans, but those foodies are just as interested in new restaurants and specialty shops.

Some restaurants say a buffer is necessary to keep trucks from poaching customers. The owner of a Roberto’s Tacos at the corner of Eastern and Owens Avenues said mobile vendors have hurt his business by offering burritos and tacos for a fraction of his price. His tacos cost more to subsidize the higher rent, utility and other costs associated with a brick-and-mortar restaurant — one of the main complaints of the anti-food truck forces. Roberto’s is essentially fast food, and quite a bit closer to food truck fare than your typical white-tablecloth joint. The proposed buffer probably wouldn’t have helped, since the trucks in question parked on private property — where they were invited.

Meanwhile, Arts Factory and Bar + Bistro owner Westley Myles has taken his anti-food truck feelings to Facebook. On Saturday, noting that the Love Grub truck was “60 feet” from Bistro’s door, he wrote, “the tomatoes are going to be prepared,” and posted a photo of himself in a tomato-throwing pose.

Later that day: “The police are here. Food truck wars have gone violent. It’s WAR. Shit I’m still the one picking up trash at 6:30 a.m. I guess that’s my real gripe.”

The Institute for Justice, a national organization with a libertarian bent and a focus on economic liberty, sent a letter to the council opposing the proposed distance restrictions. The group is challenging similar rules in other cities in court.

Lisa Popovsky, who owns the Roamin’ Dough truck with her husband, said times are tough and everyone wants to protect their bottom line. Restaurants may be blaming food trucks for slow business that may have nothing to do with their presence.

“They’re looking for a scapegoat, and we’re the most obvious one,” she said.