Gnarly Shawarma owner finds Breckenridge keeps tight lid on food carts
Breaking into the tightly controlled world of Breckenridge food carts requires a keen understanding of town code, a bit of luck and the right colors of paint, as the owner of a new Mediterranean food cart, the Gnarly Shawarma, recently discovered.
“It was pretty much impossible,” said Anthony Tabanji as he talked about getting the necessary permits and permissions to open a large permanent food cart in downtown Breckenridge, which limits the number of licenses it issues for the downtown historic district to four.
As luck would have it, however, the owner of an existing business license, Stella’s Hungry Horse, was willing to sell, and that’s where Tabanji found his opportunity. Other licenses are currently held by Crepes A La Cart and the Climax jerky wagon at Main Street and Ski Hill Road.
Overall, the town that’s a top destination for tourists keeps a tight lid on the food cart industry, especially downtown, both restricting the number of business licenses available to large food carts and imposing tight regulations on the business owners who are lucky enough to get one.
“Breckenridge has had a real strong tradition of watching the aesthetics, and it’s important to the town folks the town looks good,” said Peter Grosshuesch, director of Breckenridge community development.
He added that limiting the number of large food carts downtown to four “goes back to the politics of the folks that operated restaurants” at the time. Because brick-and-mortar restaurant owners pay full rent, utilities and other fees, some saw vendor carts and food trucks as threats to their business that were “not competing on a level playing field,” Grosshuesch continued.
After obtaining the business license, Tabanji opened his food cart in late May, selling shawarma sandwiches, plates, meat on a stick, hummus and other authentic Lebanese baked delicacies.
And since then, business has been great. They offer a loyalty rewards card, in which someone buys nine entrees and the 10th is free, and they’ve already had a couple people cash in on the deal.
“It’s exceeding my expectations,” Tabanji said of his early sales, adding that he might have “underestimated how word spreads in a small town” and “the amount of return customers in the last four weeks has been really encouraging.”
If appraisals on Facebook are any indication, the Gnarly Shawarma is an early hit with 19 of its 20 Facebook reviews giving the eatery a perfect five out of five stars — the lone exception being a four-star rating.
“I’ve eaten shawarma in at least six countries across three continents, and I swear to the Holy above that this is as good as it gets,” wrote Jon Weibe in one of those reviews. “Crazy tasty, and I had no trouble filling up with the change in my pocket.”
Still, getting to this point wasn’t without its headaches, and obtaining the business license for a large food cart was only the first step in Tabanji’s crash course into Breckenridge town code.
Since then, he’s learned that if he wants to add a table or refurbish the exterior, he’s going to need town approval first.
“It’s really whatever I need to do, I need to get permission from the town,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s a lot of work, but you drive up and down Main Street, and you see the reasoning behind it.”
In terms of regulating food carts, the town controls everything from the color of paint to allowable signage.
At most, large food carts can be 100 square feet in size, or about half the size of a one-car garage. Additionally, they must be painted in accordance with a town-approved color pallet, and the exterior has to be well maintained, without any broken or rusty parts.
If a large vendor cart has wheels, the wheels must be permanently screened with a skirting design that’s “architecturally compatible” with the exterior of the cart. Any trailer hitch must be completely removed or covered from view.
The carts must be windproof, waterproof and able to be locked when not in operation. Outdoor seating is limited to 12 seats with three tables.
Also, all metal seams, as well as any overlapping joints, must be concealed. Wood detailing and finishes must be made to last for the long term, and “no rough-cut, unfinished or distressed woods” can be considered as finish materials.
Generators are prohibited, unless used in emergency scenarios when the permanent power source is off, and large vendor carts can also only sell food and beverage — hot or cold — in “forms suited for immediate consumption,” regardless if they are actually eaten on-site or taken to go.
Additionally, owners are required to improve the area around their large food carts, whether that be through the installation of pavers, landscaping, awnings or small decks.
The idea behind this is to make the carts look “less temporary” and ensure they “blend into the surrounding character.” That might seem like a lot to cope with for a new business owner, but those are just some of the regulations, and Tabanji sees the value in them.
“From my perspective, it’s been brutal to get all these permissions and permitting, but I respect it,” he said. “I think it has a place because it’s preserving the historic integrity of the town.”
And his location couldn’t be much better either, as the Gnarly Shawarma at 327 N. Main St. stands as the first food option drivers see coming into town south on Main Street.
The Gnarly Shawarma is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For more, go to TheGnarlyShawarma.com or call 970-462-7591.
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