Columbia, SC: New City Law Could Restrict Food Trucks

Mayor Steve Benjamin confirmed today he is willing to reconsider the ordinance so it doesn't hamper the food truck business.

by Eva Moore | Columbia’s Free Times

Mayor Steve Benjamin confirmed today he is willing to reconsider the ordinance so it doesn't hamper the food truck business.

A new city law could have some unintended consequences for Columbia’s budding food truck scene.

The ordinance, which passed August 2 and takes effect in six months, was designed to crack down on roadside vendors selling produce, flowers, furniture and other wares at sprawling, semi-permanent outdoor locations that some city leaders felt were a nuisance. The law restricts the hours those vendors can operate and requires them to submit a letter from the property owner and a site plan to the city for each location they plan to use.

But Columbia’s food trucks have just discovered that they also fall under the new law — and some are worried it’ll hamper their ability to do business.

Scott Hall, who runs Bone-In Artisan Barbecue on Wheels, says it would be tough for him to get a permit for each site he wants to park his truck. For example, sometimes he’ll get a call from a business asking him to set up there the very next day.

“It would just make it so difficult for us to do business,” Hall says. “It would completely eliminate our ability to bounce around, to function like a real food truck.”

Krista Hampton, the city’s director of planning and development services, says city staff are looking for ways to make the process as easy as possible for vendors. For example, she hopes to be able to issue permits for all a truck’s proposed sites at once, for the price of one zoning permit.

She also says the city will turn a new permit around as quickly as possible if a truck wants to add a location.

“It can be issued immediately,” Hampton says. “They just have to have the owner’s permission.”

But there’s another concern for the trucks: City zoning laws require a certain number of parking spaces for each business in the city, depending on the type of business. Under the new ordinance, the site plan must show that the temporary vendor won’t occupy any of a business’ required parking spaces.

But many businesses have just the number of spaces required by law, not more. And trucks will often take up a few of those spaces.

“It would eliminate every spot we currently park,” Hall says.

One business that regularly hosts Hall’s truck is Baan Sawan Thai Bistro, a small, family-run restaurant on Devine Street. On Saturdays, the Bone-In truck parks in Baan Sawan’s parking lot, blocking off some of its required spaces, while the restaurant sets up outdoor tables and serves drinks specially designed to pair with Hall’s menu.

Chef Sam Suaudom and bartender/manager Alex Suaudom, two brothers who own and manage Baan Sawan with their parents, are distressed by what the new ordinance might mean for their Saturday partnership with Hall.

“We’re seeing people trying very hard to bring new products and methods to Columbia and at every step being stymied,” Sam Suaudom says. “[The ordinance] doesn’t seem like it’s well thought out. It’s a shotgun effect, taking down way more than it should.”

And Alex Suaudom calls the ordinance “misguided city protectionism” that hurts the kind of entrepreneurs the city should be trying to encourage.

“Aren’t food trucks the epitome of small business?” Alex Suaudom asks.

The Suaudom brothers say they’ve never had a complaint about their Saturday collaborations from a nearby resident or business.

Columbia has just four food trucks, and they’re all relatively new. And while cities like Los Angeles have been learning how best to regulate food trucks for decades, Columbia is new to the experience.

Indeed, Columbia’s food trucks met with another obstacle last week, when the city police said the trucks weren’t allowed to set up along Hampton Street in front of the Columbia Museum of Art during its Friday evening Arts & Draughts event. At the museum’s invitation, the trucks have parked there at previous events, but were told this time that the space was city property and they couldn’t be there.

Hall’s truck set up behind the museum instead. But he says the incident just reinforces the feeling that his business isn’t on secure footing with the city.

“I feel like if they wanted to crack down on us they could find some way,” Hall says.

Council currently has no official plans to take up the ordinance again; City Clerk Erika Salley says no discussion of the law is scheduled for August 16, as has been reported elsewhere.

However, Mayor Steve Benjamin confirmed today he is willing to reconsider the ordinance so it doesn’t hamper the food truck business.

A Facebook group called Friends of Columbia’s Food Trucks and Carts has been pushing the issue online — and the group’s members say they’re calling city leaders.

City staff and council members spent more than a year revising and debating the new ordinance — particularly after The State reported that the ordinance might put local artist Ernest Lee, also known as the Chicken Man, out of business. Under the final version of the law, the Chicken Man is safe — but it turns out the truck that sells stuffed chicken wings might not be.