Columbia, SC: Food Truck Owners Fighting New City Regulations

Chef Scott Hall packages an order inside the Bone-In Artisan BBQ truck, in the parking lot at Mad Platter. photo - Tracy Glantz
Joey Thompson takes an order from Melanie and Jeff Stanley, who met for lunch in front of her job at General Sales on Huger Street. "It's convenient having them come to us," Melanie Stanley said. "I don't have to deal with traffic." - Kim Kim Foster-Tobin

Columbia’s mobile food-truck vendors, who offer a new and increasingly popular dining option, are worried they might get gobbled by city regulations of peddlers that take effect next year.

Starting in February, any vendor who wants to set up shop on private property to sell anything from puppies to produce must have written permission from the landowner. They also must provide city officials with drawings of the sites they frequent and must meet zoning requirements, especially having sufficient parking spaces.

“I think this has the potential to regulate us out of existence,” said Scott Hall, the 34-year-old owner of Bone In Artisan Barbecue on Wheels, whose menu includes pulled pork in chipotle and peach sauce that it sells under the name “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” after the 1979 Charlie Daniels Band hit song.

City leaders say food-truck vendors are the unintended victims of requirements aimed at other mobile businesses that effectively are moving flea markets. City Council approved those rules Aug. 2 after a citizens committee had recommended tougher regulations that would have restricted vendors to no more than three times per year at any single location.

“I just feel that we are a side effect of some other issue,” said Hall, who is using a public relations firm to help mount a campaign against the impending restrictions.

The effective date of the rules was postponed six months to give businesses time to be licensed and educated about the new law. The most troublesome provision for the food-truck vendors is that their vehicles cannot occupy parking spaces that a business must have by law. Very few businesses spend the money to have more spaces than city zoning laws require.

City officials heard no complaints about the new regulations until about two weeks ago, when truck vendors began learning about the rules. Some thought the more restrictive proposals recommended by the citizens’ committee had become law, said Krista Hampton, the city’s director of planning and development services.

Columbia officials and members of City Council are working to devise ways to lift the regulations from food-truck operators or write a new law specific to that business, Hampton said. Any decision to change the law could be adopted by the end of November, she said.

Social media have proved to be key to the success of food trucks and haven risen to their defense.

Chef Scott Hall packages an order inside the Bone-In Artisan BBQ truck, in the parking lot at Mad Platter. photo - Tracy Glantz

The vendors advertise their menus and tell people where the trucks will be through Twitter and Facebook. Their backers say food trucks add texture to a city often stuck in a culture of sameness. They want city government to leave them alone.

Pottery studio owner Margaret Nevill is among the backers. She invited Bone-In to serve lunch to customers and neighbors most Wednesdays since spring in the parking lot of her Millwood Avenue shop.

“They make it seem like they add a little more cosmopolitan feel … a bit of funkiness,” Nevill, of the Mad Platter, said of the four food-truck businesses, which are an outgrowth of similar operations that have succeeded for years in major cities.

“My goal was not to bring myself business,” Nevill said of the studio she’s run for 14 years and lives near. “My goal was to bring something different to my neighborhood.”

It has worked, she said.

“The first day we had them, it was awesome,” Nevill said. “They sold out. The (pottery studio) customers started liking it. Neighbors liked that they could come over for lunch. It was like having a neighborhood restaurant.”

Two of the four food trucks have city licenses to operate: Bone In and Pawley’s Front Porch, owned by former city councilman Kirkman Finlay. 2 Fat 2 Fly Stuffed Chicken Wings got its permits Friday afternoon. Alfresco Mobilista Bistro does not have its licenses, business license office director Brenda Kyzer said Friday. Owner Adams Hayne said he did not know he needed the licenses. Violators can be fined up to $677.50 per day, Kyzer said.

Finlay said he thinks the new rules are over-regulation, making it hard for food trucks to respond quickly when customers invite them onto their property.

“It’s, by definition, supposed to be a spontaneous thing,” Finlay said. “If it’s a very cumbersome process to apply for a site, it takes all the profit out of it.”

Hampton said the city is allowing each food-truck business to get one permit for a number of locations where it has written agreements with property owners. She also said permits can be issued any business day between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. at the zoning office. “The only problem would be if he’s driving down the road and someone says, ‘Come immediately,’ ’’ Hampton said.

Ramone Dickerson and his business partner started 2 Fat 2 Fly in November because the Columbia-area natives wanted to help bring something new to the community. “There was definitely a lure about pioneering this in Columbia,” Dickerson, 31, said. “We’ve been building a very strong following.”

His menu offerings include chicken stuffed with macaroni and cheese or Cajun rice and sausage.

Dickerson said he’s convinced the city will not regulate the business out of existence. “It doesn’t appear they’re going after us.”

Hall, who said he was in the food business for 13 years in New York City, also views food trucks as expanding Columbia’s dining scene.

“It shows that we’re in line with the rest of the country as far as culinary, cultural expression … of a really interesting subculture,” he said.