Last week, J.B. Smith of the Waco Herald-Tribune wrote about mounting tension between downtown restaurant owners and the food trucks that park near their entrances.
It's easy to read J.B.'s article and forecast doom and gloom brewing in resurgent downtown Waco, a purported disconnect resulting in shop owners without customers, customers without parking spots, and mobile vendors rolling in ill-gotten gains.
Lest any reader think this dynamic reflective of the city's street vending scene as a whole, allow me to provide some perspective.
Given that there are only three food trucks consistently operating near downtown (Milo, Sergio's, and Pokey O's), any claims that these vendors are "taking over downtown" is patently false. I don't include the food trucks or trailers at the Magnolia Silos, Mary Avenue Market, or University Parks in this number because they rarely, if ever, move.
Milo exclusively serves the Uptown area, switching between the Wine Shoppe on 18th and Pinewood Roasters on 23rd. Sergio's has parked on the 500 block of Austin for years: first on the street in front of Dichotomy, and now, after the kerfluffle with Stone Hearth, in the parking lot owned by Steve Sorrells across the street. Pokey O's rotates among multiple locations daily, both in and out of downtown.
In three years of operating the Pokey O's truck, I've never once been rejected after asking a downtown shop owner for permission to park. One reason is that I dedicate time to strengthen our relationship, checking in regularly to ensure that the partnership remains mutually beneficial.
We tag their business in posts seen by over 30,000 people. We keep their employees full of free cookies and ice cream. We bring customers to their front door.
Even still, if a shop owner told me tomorrow that she didn't want Pokey O's to park there anymore, I'd have to respect that perspective and immediately move on. Tons of retailers in Waco would love to have a food truck parked at their business, understanding that a vendor serving in their lot generates more activity than a customer parking his sedan in the same spot.
As mobile operators, we need to be honest about the hierarchy: we're only allowed to park anywhere because of the generosity of property owners. The onus is on us to demonstrate the value that food trucks bring, not only to retailers but to the community as a whole. The benefits of mobile vendors are myriad and well-documented, but not everyone can see them clearly.
And that's because there's an ideological shift taking place in Waco right now. It's a struggle that has waged for a couple years, and it's exemplified in two Facebook comments on J.B.'s piece.
One from a reader named Sandra Daniels Runkle:
We've tried to eat at Jake's several times and gave up because there was no parking. It does seem unfair that there's a food truck taking up two parking spots. We feel lucky when we actually get to go inside Jake's and eat
And another, from Cassandra Thorn Martin:
I don’t think Sergios being outside stone hearth would hurt stone hearth’s business at all. On the contrary... for us, it would increase our ability to visit stone hearth. If sergios is right outside and I can get the kids tacos, my husband and I can eat indian food when we have the kids. Otherwise the kids are NOT going to eat indian food so we cannot go there unless we have a babysitter. But if we are headed to stone hearth, we are not going to change our minds and eat sergios instead. My husband and I really love sergios, but we go to the restaraunt to eat.
These two perspectives highlight the difference in mentality between what I call "Old Waco" and "New Waco."
These terms have nothing to do with age or how long one has lived here. "Old Waco" wants to keep the city "the way it was," when there was never traffic on downtown streets and always parking in front of the few retailers. "New Waco" wants increased retail, restaurant, and residential options, and is willing to deal with the additional headaches that come with them.
Years ago, long before I'd ever dreamed of moving to Waco, a longtime resident told me something I'll never forget. This was pre-Fixer Upper, food trucks, and hip downtown lofts. Waco clearly had the bones to be greater than it was, and I asked about her thoughts on its future.
"What will hold Waco back," she said, "Won't be a lack of money or interest or commitment. It'll be one thing: convenience."
The person who needs a front parking spot in order to support a downtown establishment, the person who won't eat at a restaurant because there's a 15 minute wait, the person who gets so angered by Magnolia traffic that they don't leave their house, wants to live in a fundamentally different Waco than I do.
And that's okay! We can still coexist and learn from each other and love one another well. But, eventually, one of our preferred ways of life will prevail.
Waco is in the "scale" stage right now. Just like an early stage company trying to grow, decision makers are figuring out how to deal with increased activity, spotlight, and opportunities while retaining to reasons why people were drawn to it in the first place.
For Waco to be as great as it can be, the divisions of "Old Waco" and "New Waco" must be dissolved. We must all communicate, settle our disagreements, and migrate to a unified vision of Waco: one where convenience does not rule, and a commitment to community does.