Getting a truck up and running now, vendors say, is a process loaded with red tape
By Anna Lee | GreenvilleOnline.com
Most people will agree that they’ve never tasted Brussels sprouts this good.
Deep fried, tossed in vinegar and sprinkled with popcorn, they’ve been known to sway even the most die-hard Brussels sprouts hater, according to Lauren Zanardelli and boyfriend, Graham Foster, the duo behind Neue Southern and Greenville’s newest kitchen on wheels.
The food truck has become something of a fixture outside Community Tap, where the lunch hour on a recent Tuesday brought a steady crowd of foodies, hipsters, office workers, even a surgeon still in his blue scrubs. One woman wanted one of everything, and the orders came in as fast as Foster could fry them.
On a good day, Zanardelli said a three-hour service can be expected to make about $500. In the month since Neue Southern has opened, though, it’s been averaging $600 to $700, and the business has spawned an almost cult-like following.
“We have regular stalkers on Twitter and Facebook,” Zanardelli said with a laugh.
Compared to the days of the factory-gate roach coaches and grease wagons, food trucks today are a whole different species. Now it’s all about the gourmet, the nouveau and different, low-cost foods you can’t find anywhere else, even in Greenville, where the food truck movement has just started to catch on.
They’re not as popular here as they are in cities like Charleston, Atlanta and Asheville, where food truck rodeos are known to spring up in parks and parking lots, but Zanardelli thinks that can change over time as the city learns how this new food scene works.
Getting a truck up and running now, vendors say, is a process loaded with red tape and unknown boundaries. Some of the rules don’t seem to make much sense, and city officials admit that food trucks don’t have many options.
They may, however, work in certain parts of the city where restaurants are sparse, which is why the city hopes to study the issue with a task force that will draw up a new ordinance that could dictate everything from where vendors can park and their hours of operation to the cost of a permit.
The end goal? Striking the right balance between the public’s health, safety and welfare and its new-found appetite for food trucks.
Getting the boot
Facebook gave one giant collective groan earlier this month when ASADA broke the news to its 400 friends that it had just been given “the boot” from an empty softball field across from Michelin.
It turned out that the field taco truck owners Gina Petti and Roberto Cortez thought was fair game is part of the Greenville County Recreation District, where only one vendor is allowed by private contract to serve food.
A “Fight for Their Tacos” campaign was soon launched as ASADA fans reached out to the county to get the restriction lifted. One man pledged to write a letter to the mayor. Another offered up the parking lot outside a North Main yoga studio, but finding a place to set up in the city limits, even on private property, is a lot harder than knocking on doors and asking for permission.
On private lots, temporary-use permits must be issued for each new location. Each permit costs between $50 and $100 and requires written permission from the owner, Foster said. On top of that, Neue Southern’s first and only permit took three weeks to process.
“We’re a mobile restaurant, but we’re not quite mobile,” he said. “The turnaround time is really just unacceptable because if we want to go park somewhere else next week, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
The rules for public property are more straightforward. Trucks aren’t allowed anywhere in the central business district, and they can’t stay for longer than 30 minutes in public spaces outside downtown. Vendors are also required to have a business license and show a copy of a certified letter from DHEC, though they don’t have to pay property taxes like a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Greenville gets about 35 to 40 calls a year from prospective vendors, according to Angie Prosser, director of public information and events. Only two, Neue Southern and ASADA, have business licenses, but there are a number of other food trucks that “pop in and out that may not be as familiar with our ordinances in what they can and can’t do,” Prosser said.
DHEC is taking steps to modernize its own food truck regulations to keep pace with the fast-moving industry. The current guidelines, last updated in 1993, take up less than two pages of a nearly 100-page long restaurant rulebook, and the focus is more on pizza and corn dogs than rabbit rillette and sweet potato mash.
Jim Beasley, director of DHEC’s media relations, said staff is working with stakeholders in the food service industry to gather input. Once a draft is prepared, it will be reviewed by the agency’s board, then forwarded to the state Legislature.
The new law could come as early as next year and may include more regulations and tougher standards, Prosser said.
Flexibility vs. predictability
There aren’t set hours or print menus in the food truck business.
Its pop-up nature, its impermanence, and its ability to move freely from place to place and the fair-like feeling that creates is part of what has come to define food trucks.
When cities step in to regulate the business, however, they have the power to change just how mobile food trucks can be.
At a recent workshop session, Greenville City Council took a look at how communities elsewhere have dealt with this new wave of urban development in which pedestrian traffic, a lack of food options and the sentiment of restaurants owners all have to be weighed.
Prosser said a common theme in all cities is the fear that food trucks will pull up outside an established restaurant and compete for the same customers who might choose novelty over brick and mortar.
That’s why the most severe food truck restrictions usually have to deal with where and when vending is allowed.
Charleston allows food trucks on private property with the owner’s permission, among other requirements, and sets up food truck zones that let multiple vendors onto one lot, according to Prosser. Columbia’s law states that trucks can’t set up within 100 feet of a restaurant, which is similar to ordinances in Chicago and St. Louis.
Other cities have found different ways to rein in food trucks. Boston requires food trucks to have four different permits; Evanston, Texas, only lets local restaurants operate food trucks; and Seattle gives restaurants veto power over whether food trucks can operate near their businesses.
Birmingham limits hours of operation in the city center from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on weekdays and requires food trucks to pay a $500 annual permit fee and an extra $300 to operate downtown.
These are growing pains that are happening everywhere to some degree, but communities tend to loosen their restrictions once they find how valuable food trucks can be, said Steve Palmer, co-founder and CEO of the mobile food-finding app, TruckyLove.
“It takes a few months, maybe even years, for some cities to kind of grasp how much they can do for the people in the community,” Palmer said.
In Philadelphia, entire events are designed around food trucks. Forty or 50 vendors will converge at once on a single street, and the city uses them as a mechanism to bring visitors into certain parts of town that may be underdeveloped or underappreciated, he said.
Small shopping centers, like Stone’s Point off Wade Hampton Boulevard, where Neue Southern is usually found, are also great places for food trucks since they draw foot traffic and create a “two-for-one situation,” where people can shop and fit in a meal or vice versa.
“That’s the question that a government has to look at,” Prosser said during the workshop. “Do we need that supplemental food in a certain period of time?”
City Council members pointed out pockets of the city where there are large concentrations of people but not enough restaurants to serve everyone, particularly at lunch when employees have short breaks and don’t want the hassle of coming downtown and finding a place to park. Augusta Road, West Greenville and Stone Avenue were examples.
The ideal location for food trucks, of course, would be downtown, but Zanardelli and Foster said they don’t necessarily want to be on the main drag where traffic congestion could pose a problem.
Back roads would be a better fit, but private parking lots that serve high rise office buildings should be allowed too, they said.
Petti said food trucks would make the most sense downtown late at night, when most of the restaurants are closing up but there’s still plenty of people out on the street. She’d love to be allowed at the TD Saturday Market, street festivals like Artisphere, or for the city to create designated food-truck zones while also allowing more freedom to move around.
When asked what restrictions will or won’t work, Foster said a perimeter between food trucks and restaurants is too “black and white.” Some restaurants only serve dinner, others just lunch, and there really is no competition between Neue Southern and first-rate fine dining like Devereaux’s.
Health or safety-related rules, like the ones now that require food trucks to have a certain size waste retention tank and be tied to a commercial kitchen they have to visit at least once a day, make sense, too, but things like time restrictions feel like regulation for the sake of regulation, Zanardelli said.
Whatever happens, both food truck owners want to have a say in the task force that will decide their fate.
“We don’t want to go park in front of Two Chefs and take all of their business … but we do want our opportunity for success as well,” Foster said.