It seems pretty simple: There are people who want to provide great mobile food to the city. There are other people who want to pay money to eat their food. Put them together and everyone’s happy, right? Not so much. Brick and mortar restaurant owners question the fairness of access to downtown customers on the cheap while they pay rent, taxes and fill downtown spaces on a full-time basis.
That’s essentially what made the city realize that some regulation had to happen. Other issues surrounding food trucks include the fact that the city has to provide a place for the garbage and grease they produce. Where they park is another issue. We can’t have a large vehicle slowing traffic or their line of customers stretching into the roadway. It can get downright complicated.
That was very apparent last night when the city formally announced its plans to establish seven food truck zones around the city. Each zone will have certain hours of operation and the spaces can be reserved through Edwin Wong with the Mobile Food Truck Association. The plan would only be available to trucks which have passed the required city inspections by KUB (for the grease trap), a certified electrician and the health department in addition to obtaining a business license from the city. The idea was to set up a plan, work it for a year and then re-evaluate.
The plan was developed over a period of about nine months in a series of meetings with restaurant owners and food truck vendors. A group of city officials including Bill Lyons, Patricia Robledo and Rick Emmett traveled to Nashville and spent a day with officials there talking about the issue. They looked at a good number of other cities in our region to better understand what worked and what didn’t.
Bill Lyons pointed out that each of the cities they looked at were on a second or third iteration of their policies as they discovered unintended consequences and shaped their policies to correct problems and amplify successes. He also noted that the city wants to encourage food trucks and if this policy doesn’t do that, they’ll look at it for revisions.
The $500 annual fee was the source of the vast majority of the discussion. On its face it is one of the top five most expensive such charges in the country. I do wonder if business licenses, for example, are much more expensive in these other cities. It’s likely hard to compare across cities and be certain you are comparing the same thing. Still, it does seem odd that Knoxville would be one of the five most expensive places to put a food truck on the street.
Rick Emmett explained that if parking spaces are going to be dedicated to the trucks for a certain number of hours every day, that is a loss of revenue, plus the city has to deploy the police department to make sure the spaces are available for the trucks. Of course, there are administrative costs. Still, he says the $500 just covers the spaces for those hours.
Sounds reasonable, but there were good questions: “What if I only do special events?” “What if my ice cream truck only operates in the summer?” “What if this is a very part-time outgrowth of our farm and we rarely, if ever, use the designated zones?” “Why do we have to get a site permit to use private property?”
The zones are on the periphery of downtown. For the most part they will have to be a destination at this point to be profitable – people will have to know they are there and go on purpose. On the Old City side, one zone is just beyond Barley’s. I think late-night is the idea there. The other on that end of downtown is on Depot just outside Southern Depot. I’m not sure what to make of that one. At the opposite end of the city, there’s a zone on Main Street and another in front of the old Federal Courthouse. Lunch makes sense for the former and maybe the later. On the far east side, a zone sits in front of the Knoxville Transit Center. Not sure about that one. Finally, the two most likely to be wildly successful, in my opinion, sit in front of Country Music Park and on the 300 block of Gay Street adjacent to the Visitor’s Center.
Kristen Faerber, noting the mostly fringe locations, pointed out that the metered spots on Market Street are “bagged” all day every Friday before the Farmers’ Market starting in May and running through December and asked if those couldn’t be utilized by food trucks on that day each week so they would have a shot at a central location once a week. Bill Lyons said that could be considered. I couldn’t help but think, however, that the zones avoided the Market Square area for a reason. I suspect the restaurants there don’t want them that close, even one day a week.
I did hear one truck owner suggest that the crowd got too hung up on the $500 and that for a year’s operation that isn’t too bad – less than $2 per day. Others implied they might not pay it. Byron Sambot, co-owner of the Savory and Sweet Truck asked what would happen if no one paid it. Bill Lyons said, “it would be hard to call that a success.” It was the best line of the night.
Still, if $500 per truck would cover the spaces, it raises some other questions, like what if downtown isn’t your thing, why do you have to cover the costs of those spaces? Are those spaces otherwise occupied during those periods? Couldn’t the city subsidize part of that cost simply to encourage the idea? One person suggested that it could have been free for six months so the truck owners can get an idea of whether the profits would be enough to justify the expense.
So, as a plan it might be flawed in some respects. Even the city officials proposing it acknowledged as much. But it is better than no plan. Food truck operators now know the rules. Downtown workers and residents can now know where to find a food truck and when. You can see the entire plan here.
It’s a step and, hopefully, just a first step to a thriving food truck culture that doesn’t threaten the brick and mortar stores, but rather complements them and draws even larger groups of people into the city. What do you think? Good start? Not going to work? We will soon become the center of the food truck universe?
A slightly unrelated observation: We’ve talked a bit lately about the isolation of the 100 block. Food trucks at the end of the 300 block and in the place of an actual 200 block does help bridge that gap.
Finally, a pedestrian note: I walked to this meeting, which is probably about a half mile from my home. A cold rain began to fall, the wind began to howl and I quickly became wet and cold. Delighted to reach the gate leading down to the depot, I realized it was pad-locked and I had to walk the length of the block, almost to Central Street to the vehicle entrance. Leaving, it was worse. The vehicle entrance had closed its gates only to open to approaching automobiles. I couldn’t get out without a car. Fortunately I got a generous ride with Jeff Scheafnocker and Kristen Faerber. Otherwise I would still be in that parking lot in the cold rain. Some days it just doesn’t pay to be a pedestrian.