Downtown Madison’s restaurant scene is uncommonly vibrant — State Street is home to Thai, Afghani, East African, Italian, Japanese, Nepali and Mexican cuisines, to name a few.
The high quality and notable diversity of downtown dining can be attributed to the fierce competition that results from the sheer number of restaurants present. While this is great for consumers, it also means restaurant owners face an extremely competitive environment. This should not come as a surprise to those in the food industry — it’s common knowledge starting a restaurant is a high-risk endeavor. Those who choose to start restaurants in downtown Madison know full well the risks associated with a competitive business environment. They, of all people, should understand that if a restaurant cannot survive on its own merits, then it should not survive at all. This is the nature of the free market.
With this in mind, we find news that Silver Mine Subs and Pita Pit are pressuring the City of Madison to restrict the number and location of food carts on Broom Street disappointing.
Silver Mine, in particular, complained in a Facebook post of food carts having an “unfair advantage” because of their low overhead costs. This complaint is unreasonable. These restaurateurs knew what they were getting into when they decided to open a restaurant — nobody forced them to sign a lease. If they were so concerned about the high cost of operating a brick-and-mortar restaurant, then, perhaps, they should have opened, say, a food cart instead. And if they thought the only way they could thrive was in the absence of competition, then, perhaps, they should have noticed the myriad of other restaurants within a block of their location.
To make a culinary analogy, food carts and restaurants are like apples and oranges. They serve different foods to different consumers. Restaurants typically have much higher overhead costs, but they also have the advantage of being able to serve larger quantities of a greater variety of food. On the other hand, food carts are mobile and much less expensive to operate, but they have a limited capacity.
To be clear, what Silver Mine and Pita Pit are doing is perfectly rational. It is only natural for them to try to insulate themselves from the two-wheeled competition of food carts. This editorial is not an indictment of the restaurants themselves; indeed, it is quite possible the writers of this editorial were fueled by sandwiches from our downstairs neighbor, Silver Mine. However, it is not the job of City Council to protect the interests of a select few businesses. In the words of everyone’s favorite Vulcan, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
At its heart, this is an issue of consumer choice. People will eat where they damn well please, be it at a food cart or a brick-and-mortar restaurant. If someone is walking down Broom Street with Pita Pit on the right and Fried and Fabulous on the left, which restaurant they go to will depend on whether they want a falafel or a fried Oreo.
For this reason, we believe the compromise proposed by Ald. Scott Resnick, District 8, and Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, is extremely reasonable. The compromise, which would involve eliminating three parking stalls in front of Pita Pit, should make everyone happy. The restaurants get what they want: not having a food cart parked directly in front of them. The food carts get what they need: a place to sell their food. And, most importantly, Madisonians get what they crave: a wide variety of delicious food choices.