Equal Time: Working together to find common ground

It’s not about food trucks.

Let me start by saying I am 100 percent pro-food trucks at wineries, breweries or even farm stands. OK great; now that I have established that, I will continue.

This is a direct response to the Aug. 4 editorial. I will explain the complexities that the editorial lacks and flesh out a topic that is not as simple as the picture the editorial paints.

Zoning is the first problem in this issue. Since, by and large, wineries are classified as agricultural zoning they are not allowed to produce food on site. For many years, this is how the relationship between vineyard and restaurant was developed. The vineyard would contact a restaurant to see if it had the proper catering permit to provide food on site during events. The restaurants would carry local wines to support the upstart industry. I can’t say I’ve tasted the wine made back at the birth of the industry but I know from speaking with my grandfather and other professionals it has come leaps and bounds.

As the industry grew, new money poured into the North Fork, and those with little or no connection to the community or familiarity with town code began to build more vineyards. It was then that the challenge to the code was beginning to be made. Commercial-grade kitchens were built in some of these wineries so they could double as a catering hall or at the very least provide food, which as we know is not permitted on agriculturally zoned land. While most of this was limited and squashed by town enforcers/zoning board, there are wineries with these kitchens somehow still installed.

Now, food trucks have come along and the debate has heated up with real concern. America is built on competition, but also on the ability of the government to equal the playing field. Winery owners who have the capital do not need local restaurants as much as they did when they couldn’t sell North Fork wine to anybody outside the area. They can now just buy their own food trucks and employ people to run them, keeping it all in house.

The first check/balance of a winery being able to do this is the commissary a food truck is supposed to have. It is quite simple to dodge actually. Catering companies have been using a “loophole” for years and it continues to be done. You can claim to the health department that the commissary is the kitchen of a local restaurant, while the food is actually made at the winery. The reason this is important is because the food truck or catering company without a commissary does not have to pay the taxes on property, therefore have an unfair advantage.

Permitting food trucks that are actually owned and operated by a local restaurant that has proper permits should be allowed. What shouldn’t be allowed is wineries buying their own food trucks and hiring people to operate them. This is what has begun to happen at vineyards — and is the real reason there is an outcry.

There are at least three vineyards in Southold Town that have the kitchens to be able to prep food on site. The ease with which they can prep the food, place the prepped food into their food truck and offer VIP table service makes the statement “Wineries cannot function like restaurants, on that much everyone can agree,” completely untrue. What I have just explained in detail is the slippery slope that endangers not the rural integrity, but fair business practices.

For me, when it comes down to it, I just want to know where the future stands for me. When I come back home to start my business, will it always be threatened by non-enforceable code? Will it be that I can start or help start a restaurant at a winery? Will it even be in the Town of Southold that I want to do business?

I hesitated to write this a year ago and now everything I would have written has come to pass. I also write this as no longer an employee of the family business, with no skin in the game anymore — except for when I return to start my own business. I write this so that we can have transparency on this topic from somebody with a different level of understanding.

I hope this will help wineries, farm stands, restaurants and, most important, the town come together and work together. Or maybe nothing will be done because that requires a lot more effort and the businesses with agricultural zoning will be able to continue to do things outside what their zoning permits. I hope for the former.

The author was born and raised in Mattituck and has worked as a chef at his family businesses, including Jamesport Manor Inn.