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Wed, Oct. 23

‘Street food’ arrives in Downtown Prescott

Vasili Markou, owner of Preskitt Eats, serves a customer this past week from his vendor cart alongside the courthouse plaza. (George Lurie/Courier)

Vasili Markou, owner of Preskitt Eats, serves a customer this past week from his vendor cart alongside the courthouse plaza. (George Lurie/Courier)

Downtown Prescott’s first regular “street food” vendor is now dishing up steaming chicken kabobs six days a week off the sidewalk next to courthouse plaza — and while area foodies may have reason to rejoice, some nearby restaurant owners are finding the new competition a little hard to swallow.

Last month, after the so-called Food Truck Freedom Act became law, Vasili Markou, owner of Preskitt Eats, began positioning his mobile food cart in a public parking space across the street from the Devil’s Pantry restaurant on Whiskey Row.

Preskitt Eats had been a delivery-only restaurant and Markou said he saw the new law, which lifted regulations dictating where mobile food vendors could operate, as “a great way to expand the business.”

But Dave Seigler, owner of the Devil’s Pantry, one of just a handful of eateries dotting Whiskey Row, believes the new, looser food truck regulations are unfair to brick and mortar restaurants like his.

“I put my place here because I thought I was in a business-safe zone,” Seigler said. “I support food trucks but I never thought anybody would make a law that lets street vendors operate right outside my restaurant and poach my customers.”

Roxane and John Nielsen, owners of the Prescott Brewing Company, are worried the new street food vendors will monopolize precious downtown parking spots. “I really don’t want any of them setting up in front of my restaurant and taking parking spaces from my patrons,” Roxane Nielsen said.

But Dennis McCormick, owner of the historic Palace restaurant, said the new mobile food vendors, which he referred to as “hot dog stands,” don’t really bother him.

“If somebody’s wanting a hot dog, they’re not going to get it at The Palace,” McCormick said. “It’s certainly possible these guys are taking money out of some people’s pockets. But everybody’s got a right to make a buck in this world.”

Former Prescott City Councilman Chris Kuknyo believes the new law is unfair to brick and mortar businesses. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about free enterprise,” he said. “But when you think about it, a lot of our school funding comes from property taxes and these guys selling out of food carts don’t have to pay property taxes.”

“And if we’re going to allow food carts, what about retail carts?” Kuknyo added. “How do you think Jim Lamerson would feel if someone rolled up a cart and started selling jewelry outside his jewelry store? Where does it end? Are we just going to have one big flea market here some day?”

Scott Currey, special events coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, manages the booths at the weekend fairs that draw hundreds to downtown Prescott. He expects a lot more mobile food vendors will be setting up shop in order to cater to fairgoers.

“During the weekdays, they can park in public spaces for up to two hours,” Currey said. “But on weekends, no one is monitoring parking so they can park there all day.”

The Food Truck Freedom Act, also known as HB 2371, was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in May and went into effect on Aug. 3. The law prevents Arizona municipalities from banning food trucks — or barring them and mobile food carts from setting up in public parking spaces.

The new law, according to Paul Avelar, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice’s Arizona office, levels the playing field. Avelar called the old regulations “outdated and hostile.” The Food Truck Freedom Act, he said, will provide more Arizonans “an affordable path to starting their own business.”

Mobile food vendors operating in Prescott must be licensed — with their food preparation areas and carts undergoing regular inspections by the Yavapai County Health Services.

Markou said health officials will inspect his cart once a month for the first three months he operates as a mobile vendor. Meanwhile, he is renting space in Labruzza’s Ristorante’s commercial kitchen during the hours the restaurant is closed. He’s also in the process of getting a second food cart up and running at the airport.

Preskitt Eats offers Mediterranean-style marinated chicken served on pita bread that Markou makes every morning from scratch. He can offer “high-quality” food at low cost, he said, “because we are a ghost restaurant — no storefront — just a kitchen and a chef.”

The 27-year-old entrepreneur, who expects more food cart competition to show up soon on the plaza, declined to comment on reports he’s been harassed by some downtown business owners. “I don’t want any problems,” Markou said. “What we’re doing is perfectly legal.”

“Several downtown restaurant owners have actually reached out and expressed an interest in working together,” Markou added. A local businessman, he said, has offered to help him franchise his business.

“This is the first time there’s been street food in downtown Prescott,” Markou added. “Some people will think it’s for the better and some won’t.”

Seigler says he’s always supported food trucks. “I used to be one,” he said. “I started with a food booth and then a food truck.”

A disabled vet who also operates a local nonprofit, Seigler said that eventually, running a food truck became “too physically demanding. I picked Whiskey Row for my restaurant because of the number of people the street fairs attract,” he said. “I thought there would never be any serious competition because there are only a few restaurants.”

After trying to convince Markou to move his cart farther from the Devil’s Pantry entrance, Seigler said he’s now accepted the fact that street vendors will be part of the courthouse plaza landscape. “I guess there’s always going to be plenty of hungry people downtown,” he said.

Markou agrees.

“Prescott needs to change with the times,” he said. “When he was signing the new law, the governor said food trucks and carts are making Arizona cities livelier, more vibrant places. That’s good for all businesses.”

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