Not all good things must end — but eventually, most need rules.
That is the case with Nashville’s burgeoning food truck scene, which has now outgrown mere novelty status and drawn the attention of traditional brick-and-mortar establishments as well as the city’s policy makers.
Until now, this mobile sector of Nashville’s food service industry has operated somewhat like a pickup basketball game. While all indications are that truck owners, in most cases, have proceeded with professionalism and common sense, nothing on the Metro books applies to them specifically. (Although, they do have to pass health department inspections, just like a conventional eatery.)
“We didn’t have any mobile vending regulations for on-street sales, and it boomed on us,” Chip Knauf, a traffic engineer with the Metro Public Works Department, told The City Paper. “This food truck boom came and caught us off guard as far as our rules and regulations go.”
But foodies elsewhere have seen this episode before. While food trucks, on their current scale, are relatively new here, they are part of a nationwide trend that has been growing for some time. Many local vendors have drawn inspiration from their brethren across the country, and city regulators may well do the same.
In Seattle, the city council and mayor adopted in July an ordinance that took effect last week. The ordinance outlines the various types of permits needed for vendors and the rules that govern them. With regard to mobile food vendors, these rules are mostly basic — for instance, vendors must obey all traffic regulations.
One bullet point in the Seattle ordinance would seem to address the concerns of some Nashville-based brick-and-mortar restaurateurs, who have taken issue with food trucks parked near their respective businesses, claiming the trucks pick off customers headed for their doors.
Mobile vendors in Seattle are not allowed to operate within 50 feet of a “food-service business.” Nor are they permitted within 1,000 feet of K-12 public or private schools or 50 feet from a public park.
In Austin — where, according to The Austin Chronicle, the food truck population is set to reach 1,620 by the end of this year — there are similar regulations. There, the Mobile Food Establishment Ordinance states that a mobile food establishment (that is, a food truck) must not park within 20 feet of a “restaurant located in a building” or within 50 feet of a “building that contains both residential and commercial uses.” The ordinance also states that trucks can’t operate between the hours of 3 and 6 a.m.
Here, the task of defining the boundaries for Nashville’s mobile food vendors falls to the Metro Public Works Department, and more specifically, the Traffic and Parking Commission. At a meeting on Aug. 8, the commission welcomed comments from the mobile vendors as well as owners of more traditional, stationary establishments.
Though no final conclusions were reached at the meeting, a development that has seemed increasingly inevitable as the food truck population grows arrived a week later with the formation of the Nashville Food Truck Association. B.J. Lofback, who owns and operates Riffs Fine Street Food, will serve as president of the association with Taste of Belgium owner Tom Perkins acting as vice president.
Speaking with The City Paper by phone, Lofback outlined the goals of the new association.
“I’d say the ultimate goal is to see the kind of street-food scene in the city of Nashville that is celebrated in this country, and really, around the world,” he said. “The vibrant and colorful street-food scene that we see in Portland, Austin, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. — why would we not want that in Nashville?”
Growing numbers of Nashvillians, who follow the trucks’ whereabouts on Twitter and Facebook and turn out at various locations across the city, seem to agree. And while Lofback said he recognizes the need for some rules of play, the association will try to make sure regulations are speed bumps at most, and not road blocks.
An overview of the Seattle ordinance on the city’s department of transportation website states the following: “[t]he new legislation streamlines the rules and regulations for street-food vending, making it easier to be a street-food vendor in Seattle.” That’s just what Lofback is hoping for here.
“We have said we understand that there needs to be regulation,” he said. “We get that. However, we want there to be regulation that supports and promotes street food in the city as opposed to regulation for the sake of regulation.”
Although conflict often gets the most attention, Lofback said Nashville’s food industry is not experiencing a civil war. Just growing pains. The more mobile restaurant operators reach out to traditional restaurant owners, he said, the more support they find.
They definitely have an ally in Michael Hayes, vice president of commercial real estate company C.B. Ragland. Hayes told The City Paper that while some degree of regulation is needed, food trucks are good for the city.
“Generally, the idea of a blossoming food truck industry is a good thing,” said Hayes, whose company owns properties from which restaurants operate. “It helps foster creativity and innovation and bring new concepts to Nashville.”
Financially speaking, food trucks also mean a lower barrier to entry in the industry, which Hayes said could help Nashville catch up with the independent food scenes in other cities.
“I look at cities like Memphis that have lower barriers to entry for restaurant operators, and the low cost to open a business there versus here has allowed more creative, entrepreneurial restaurants to open.”
Hayes said he has few concerns related to food trucks harming conventional eateries.
“Our businesses haven’t seen any material impact and we don’t expect to,” he said.
Hayes said the regulations that are needed deal mainly with public safety and health, which, along with traffic flow, are the priority, according to city officials.
Last Wednesday, the public works department posted on its website a first draft of possible regulations to allow for further public input and comment. As of this writing, the draft states that vendors must be at least 50 feet from “any restaurant,” unless they have a waiver from the “affected business(es).” A new draft is expected to be posted this week, and the department’s Knauf said a restriction on proximity to restaurants will probably not be included. However, he said such restrictions might come later if the rules need to be tightened.
“This first round or two, we’re going to make it very lenient and hope the business polices [itself],” Knauf said. “The food truck people know right from wrong — they say they do — so we’re going to give them a long rope and hope it works.”
The department, he said, is “slow-walking these regulations because we want to get them as close to right as we can.”
The issue will be on the agenda for the commission’s next meeting, slated for Sept. 12.
Lofback said he and the new association don’t want to be a problem for Metro and are happy to be reasonable.
“The city has already told us, ‘Second Avenue and Lower Broadway, you can forget about it,’ and we get that,” he said. “You’ve got one of the most popular tourist areas in the city, [and] you don’t want a bunch of food trucks blocking the view. As much as we’d like to be there, we understand, and we’re not ridiculous about it. But we sure would like to park close.”
The desire to be close to the heart of the city is illustrative of what Lofback sees as the success of food trucks elsewhere. He enthusiastically described a food truck locator that can be found on the city of Boston’s website. For Lofback, Nashville’s choice is simple.
“Some cities have embraced this whole deal and celebrated it, and other cities have looked at it as a nuisance,” he said. “Well, what is it? Which way are we going to have it?”