Nashville: Food Truck Vendors Demand Proof of Safety Concerns

Riffs Fine Street Food, flagship, of sorts, of the new Nashville Food Truck Association, at 12South Farmers Market


Riffs Fine Street Food, flagship, of sorts, of the new Nashville Food Truck Association, at 12South Farmers Market

Nashville’s mobile food truck vendors have a message for city officials who want to regulate where and when the vendors may operate.

According to the vendors, no one has proven that they pose a public safety risk, as certain brick and mortar restaurant owners, otherwise known as their competition, have claimed.

As Tennessee Watchdog reported last month, Nashville’s Traffic and Parking Commission wants to regulate mobile food truck vendors that operate in the city.

Very few food vending trucks operated in Nashville this time last year, but customers can now find more than 30 (the number of licensed vendors in Nashville is reportedly 60, although city officials told Tennessee Watchdog that they did not know the exact number). In all that time, city officials have recorded no instances of food truck vendors jeopardizing public safety, especially in Nashville’s Central Business District, said B.J. Lofback, president of the Nashville Food Truck Association.

“There is all of this speculation that there could be a safety issue or speculation that we could cause congestion on sidewalks. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know that for certain yet. This city routinely does traffic studies to find out if stop signs are needed in certain areas. If they are willing to do that, then it seems to me that they should also do traffic studies to find out if food trucks are actually going to cause some sort of problem,” Lofback told commissioners at their October meeting.

Lofback and Dennis Alpert, president of the Lebanon-based Hidden Bay Group, believe brick and mortar restaurant owners are the source of the proposed regulations (SEEN IN THE SIDEBAR BELOW).  Their complaints about public safety hazards are designed to conceal the true source of their objections, mainly the fact that they resent having more competition, Lofback and Alpert said.

Brian Taylor, who represents the brick and mortar restaurant owners, said at this month’s commission meeting that his clients want regulations to keep mobile food truck vendors a certain distance away from their restaurants (the regulations so far do not have that stipulation, however, according to the most recent draft).

“These (brick and mortar) restaurants pay their property taxes for their locations. They can’t pick up and move. They chose that particular location, because that is the one they found best suited to help them succeed. It hurts when competition just rolls right on in and sets shop right out front. It’s killing their lunch business,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s statements are strange, given that food truck vendors are not doing business near any brick and mortar restaurants, Alpert said.

“These guys (mobile vendors) want to be where restaurants aren’t. Grocery stores, for instance, want to go where there are no grocery stores. So, it’s ironic to us that there is such a hysteria about food trucks and how they are going to steal business (away from brick and mortars).”

Residents in many large American cities have embraced mobile food trucks, and city officials in Miami, Memphis, Portland, and Boston have regulated them very little — but Nashville officials differ from the rest of the country, Lofback told Tennessee Watchdog.

“It’s sad that we have to get through all this time, energy and taxpayer money to get to a reasonable conclusion, which is this — people want food trucks and food trucks want people. Let’s just get to that point sooner rather than later.”

As he did in September, Traffic and Parking Commission Chairman Gene Ward deferred any action on the issue for at least another month, citing a request from the Greater Nashville Hospitality Association.

Greg Atkins, the CEO of the Hospitality Association, told Tennessee Watchdog that he made the request because he wants to make sure that the final set of regulations can survive a court challenge.

Lofback told commissioners that the regulations, which prohibit food truck vendors from operating in certain areas of Nashville’s Central Business District, seem slanted to favor brick and mortar restaurant owners.

“The commission’s scope is traffic, parking, and safety. Yet it seems the establishment (members) lend themselves to be more favorable to those who would like to see mobile food vending opposed. Even though the commission has previously stated the competition isn’t part of the issue, it seems like competition is becoming synonymous with safety, at least from our perspective,” Lofback said at this month’s meeting.

“All we want is a level playing field. Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to be on that field.”