Knoxville, TN: Food truck owner’s vision restricted by city ordinances

Checkerboard Cheese runs lunchtime business from Main Street
in compliance with the city's food truck pilot program.

By Tanner Hancock, News Editor and Heidi Hill, Assistant News Editor  |  The Daily Beacon

Checkerboard Cheese runs lunchtime business from Main Street in compliance with the city's food truck pilot program.
Checkerboard Cheese runs lunchtime business from Main Street
in compliance with the city’s food truck pilot program.

Amin Linder, the owner of the Checkerboard Cheese food truck, has seen his fair share of Knoxville through his driver’s seat window — which, consequently, doubles as his office.

With the help of his niece and nephew, Linder spends the summer months touring Knoxville in his distinctly black van, participating in the city’s growing food truck scene.

“It was something I was trying to set up as an outlet where I would never be out of work and always have something I loved to do, in addition to teaching,that would always be mine,” Linder, who spends most of the year teaching in New York, said. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Linder said the decision to start a food truck business in Knoxville wasn’t a difficult one, given his familial ties to the region and the electric atmosphere of UT.

“My vision of perfection was closing down the truck right before the (football) game, and then coming back and opening the truck after the game, and being a part of the atmosphere along with everybody else,” Linder said. “It wasn’t a matter of just selling sandwiches.”

Linder’s vision, however, didn’t quite match up with the ordinances set in place by city officials, which prohibit food trucks like Checkerboard Cheese from vending on any public roadways, including the very popular Cumberland Avenue or the neighboring streets of Fort Sanders.

Knoxville’s business liaison Patricia Robledo oversees the Mobile Food Vending Pilot Program designed to regulate and eventually integrate food truck businesses into the city’s culture. Through much public input, Robledo has helped lay the foundations for what may eventually become Knoxville’s laws regulating food truck operations.

“Mayor Rogero created this office specifically to help businesses do business here in Knoxville,” Robledo explained. “We know that they (food trucks) provide a lot of vibrancy to the city.”

While food trucks are prohibited from operating on public roadways in Knoxville, Robledo explained that exceptions are made for special events, most notably the Market Square Farmers’ Market held every Saturday.

When not participating in special events, the city’s 24 registered food trucks are restricted to specially designated, downtown zones, and even then only at specific times.

Add that to the university’s limited space, as well as Associate Vice Chancellor for Finance & Administration Jeff Maples’ desire to keep food trucks away from university streets and conditions for business become bleak.

Linder’s most successful spot has been in front of local bars like The Casual Pint of Downtown, which specializes in beer and lacks its own kitchen. Alcohol exclusive bars such as these create a haven for food trucks run off by Cumberland Avenue competition and city restrictions.

“The idea is to make a win-win situation,” Linder said. “If you don’t offer food, having the truck there, you have more people congregating in front the bar or behind the bar, which means more people to patronize your bar that are already there for food.”

Knoxville is far from unique in regard to its restrictive food truck ordinances that are becoming the norm in large cities across the United States.

In Chicago, where food truck culture has never been given a chance to take hold, truck vendors are prohibited from operating within 200 feet of any establishment that prepares food, according to an article from the Huffington post.

In Pittsburgh, food trucks can’t operate within 500 feet of a permanent establishment that sells a similar product. In Cranston, Rhode Island, that number rises to 1,000 feet.

With local food truck options ranging from Jamaican jerk to Canadian comfort food, vendors like Linder consider the Scruffy City unexplored territory for the food truck industry, inhibited by reconstruction and heated competition among merchants on the Strip.

For Joe Burger, owner of the McDonald’s on Cumberland Avenue, the problem with food trucks lies not so much in the competition, but the loss of business brought on by construction on Cumberland Avenue.

“During this time of construction, all the businesses are hurting,” Burger said, who has encouraged other businesses on the Strip to deny food trucks access to their private lots as long as construction continues.

“The last thing we need is a bunch of food trucks down here taking away our business.”

To set up a successful business venture on Cumberland, Linder said his truck would either have to find an overnight spot for late night crowds or set up partnership with access to pre-existing space for weekly business. Without the permission of merchants on the Strip, Linder’s vision of expanding business to students may remain just a vision.

I don’t really see it see how it would be much different than them competing against each other for late night traffic,” Linder said. “ It’s a shame because the whole city, which is really the only city-nightlife spot we have to set up in is kind of far from the Strip and that’s kind of a far walk to ask of students.”

“It would be more convenient to be there where the heart of the student body is.