Louisville Wrestles with Regulating Popular Food Trucks

Ali Sagre, an information specialist for Humana, left, orders food as Madison Puckett and Loyd Coy of Smoketown wait in line to order at Morel's Vegan food truck. Several food trucks sell their wares in a lot on E. Main St. in Louisville. Nov. 04, 2011 / David R. Lutman/Special to The Courier-Journal
By Matt Frassica | The Courier-Journal
Ali Sagre, an information specialist for Humana, left, orders food as Madison Puckett and Loyd Coy of Smoketown wait in line to order at Morel's Vegan food truck. Several food trucks sell their wares in a lot on E. Main St. in Louisville. Nov. 04, 2011 / David R. Lutman/Special to The Courier-Journal

In cities like New York; Portland, Ore.; and Austin, Texas; street-food enthusiasts have come to expect trucks and carts hawking haute street cuisine like olive oil ice cream, Belgian waffles, crepes and schnitzel.

So when food trucks made their way to Louisville earlier this year, adventurous eaters rejoiced.

“I’ve seen them in other cities,” said Anthony Minstein, 59, as he waited for an order of tacos from Holy Mole, one of the local trucks. “From a culinary point of view, it’s one of the things that make Louisville so vibrant.”

But Louisville’s blossoming food-truck scene has brought unexpected headaches for city officials, who are scrambling to tailor new rules that will make sure the mobile eateries are safe and don’t cut into brick-and-mortar restaurant business.

Their first attempt, passed by the Metro Council last month, prompted a barrage of criticism from food-truck owners. They contended that the new rules added excessive paperwork and tightly restricting their movement to the point where it as almost impossible to operate.

“These ordinances … kill every mobile food operation that you all are fans of,” wrote Matt Davis, who runs Lil Cheezers, a popular grilled-cheese truck, on his Facebook page the day the new rules were announced..

In the wake of that backlash, city leaders are redrafting those rules as part of new legislation that the Metro Council may vote on as soon as Nov. 17.

Officials such as Brandon Coan, policy analyst for Mayor Fischer, say the the city had to act because the new businesses operated in a legal gray area, governed by a complicated mix of state and local regulations that were designed for vendors like ice cream trucks and funnel cake carts at county fairs.

“There was no difference (between food trucks and) someone who sets up a booth and sells rugs in a parking lot,” Coan said.

But truck owners are now chafing under the increased scrutiny after experiencing little oversight this year, with the city allowing them to operate outside the existing regulations.

“It’s been crazy, and nobody has been out policing us,” said Stanley Chase, co-owner of Morels Food Truck. “I’ve done a lot of illegal stuff, technically.”

Special rules apply

Coan met with truck owners individually over the course of the year and held a group meeting with several owners Aug. 26. He showed the owners a version of a new web page designed to organize all of the state and local application procedures and rules governing food trucks, according to several people present at the meeting.

Coan also drafted an ordinance that amended the city’s vendors and peddlers law, loosening some of the rules that the truck owners couldn’t comply with, such as 400-foot buffers between vendors and residential property.

“We worked with Councilwoman (Madonna) Flood to carve out some compromises to give mobile food unit vendors a foothold and the ability to operate legally,” Coan said.

The resulting ordinance, which Flood sponsored, created a new category for food trucks. It exempted them from some of the rules for other mobile sellers, letting them apply for a single license for the year, rather than a separate license for each location. And it cut in half the buffer zones around residential and office-residential zoned properties.

But it left many other provisions intact, including a requirement to submit a list of the spots where the trucks planned to operate for the entire year, along with detailed schematics of the locations and a notarized letter from the owner of all private property that would host the trucks — even if the owner lived in another state.

City policy also required criminal background checks for every member of the trucks’ crews — a rule that many truck owners found costly and onerous.

James Peden (R-23), chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he anticipated controversy over the regulations and at first tabled the measure in his committee, expecting that food truck owners would come to the next meeting to voice objections.

“No one from the food truck industry showed up,” he said.

So on Oct. 14 the Metro Council passed the ordinance. Six days later, the mayor’s office issued a press release saying the new regulations would “help cut red tape.”

Angry backlash

That announcement prompted a host of irate responses, such as Matt Davis’ Facebook post: “To all my fans: I have been telling everyone how Mayor Greg Fischer has been helping the food trucks, and apparently I have had the wool pulled over my eyes.”

Coan expressed surprise at the strong negative reaction. “No one from government contacted anyone and said, ‘These are the new rules. Comply with them or else you have to shut down,’” Coan said.

Likewise, Stanley Chase of Morels said that the regulatory changes shouldn’t have caused such a storm.

“A lot of the laws that everybody is upset about … 90 percent of them, we all knew they existed,” Chase said.

After meeting with Coan, Davis toned down his criticism. “I think this was more a misunderstanding,” he said, adding that he understood that the city needed to regulate the industry. “I’m fine with some red tape.”

Peden attributed the controversy to inexperience. “Mr. Coan isn’t exactly familiar with how the city operates,” he said. “He got a little lesson in civics and the food truck people are getting a little lesson in you need to participate.”

Since the dust-up, Metro Council and the mayor’s office have been trying to tweak the rules to address truck owners’ objections.

Loosening the rules

On Monday, the mayor’s office submitted a draft of a new ordinance. that eliminates the requirement for maps and notarized letters from property owners, allowing letters or emails from building management instead.

It also halves the buffer from residential properties to 100 feet, and eliminates the buffer from properties zoned office-residential. Finally, it allows the trucks to operate within 150 feet of a restaurant featuring similar menu items, as long as the restaurant owner gives written permission.

According to a city official, criminal background checks are no longer required.

The draft ordinance will be considered as new business at this Thursday’s Metro Council meeting, and Peden said he expected the council to vote as soon as Nov. 17 .

Food truck owners contacted for comment said they felt the new draft looked fair.

“That looks pretty acceptable,” said Leah Stewart, owner of the Louisville Desert Truck, after reading the proposed ordinance. “At least on a first read.”

“I think these are positive changes,” said Kaaren Weyland, who owns San Diego Sandwich Works. “(Metro government is) trying to make it easier on us to do our jobs and also comply with the city rules and regulations.”

Chase said the city has worked with food-truck owners, but he still plans to stop running Morels Food Truck and focus instead on selling his products at Rainbow Blossom and Heine Brothers.

“Most of our business now is retail,” he said. “I want people to know that we’re not closing the food truck because of the ordinance.”

At least one other food truck has decided to call it quits.

The owners of MozzaPi, who until recently made Neapolitan-style pizza out of the back of a truck, plan to open a bricks-and-mortar restaurant instead. Justyne Palermo, a co-owner of MozzaPi, said the city still isn’t doing enough to encourage mobile entrepreneurs.

“The new ordinances didn’t really change that much,” said Palermo. “It’s not a comfortable business model, as it is, to operate in Louisville. Things need to change.”