Rules of the Road: Food Trucks Face Regulations [video]

Nicole Adwell hands Carly Manning her order at the Loveshack food truck in Nashville's MetroCenter on Monday afternoon. Mobile vendors hope new rules will clarify their operating procedures in Nashville. photo by Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

by Bobby Allyn | The Tennessean

Nicole Adwell hands Carly Manning her order at the Loveshack food truck in Nashville's MetroCenter on Monday afternoon. Mobile vendors hope new rules will clarify their operating procedures in Nashville. photo by Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

Ryan Bussey, who operates the food truck Loveshack, doesn’t like the idea of having to stop serving double cheeseburgers and eggplant rollatini at 2 a.m. — the time all food trucks may soon have to close each night.

“If I were to leave a bar late at night, I would rather eat at a food truck that has good fresh food, instead of processed food,” said the 32-year-old Bussey, who, in addition to offering comfort food on wheels, runs a catering business.

The 2 a.m. cut-off time is among several proposals now in clearer view as the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission begins to devise a preliminary set of mobile food vending regulations.

The proposed rules come just as some food truck operators have run into sharp elbows from a few traditional restaurant owners who see this new wave of dining competitors as a possible drain on their sales.

Other proposed rules to emerge this week include allowing no more than two food trucks on the same block at once, limiting truck operations in the vicinity of Lower Broadway and prohibiting the trucks from blocking motorists’ line of sight when they park near roadways.

Because Nashville doesn’t have specific mobile food vending laws, food trucks have been regulated as both vehicles and restaurants, according to Metro officials, which leaves some of the vendors confused about their rights.

But even some of the draft regulations are too vague, food truck operators say, adding that they hope to clarify the rules to avoid inconsistent enforcement.

Meanwhile, Metro’s legal staff is reviewing whether the regulations must come to a Metro Council vote as a city ordinance, which may further delay or complicate resolving the issues.

A few food truck owners say they have been bullied by a small group of restaurant owners, some of whom may have called the police with complaints to keep the trucks away from their businesses.

Paul Koumanelis, owner of Pizzereal in East Nashville, is one outspoken critic. His restaurant sits near a collection of late-night bars and restaurants in the Five Points area.

“I’m not interested in these guys sucking up all the business in town. Their customers use our bathrooms, they use our trash cans. They take from the community and don’t give back,” Koumanelis said of food trucks that pass through the neighborhood.

“In a city where just turning on your water as a restaurant can cost thousands of dollars, these guys have no barriers to start. It’s not a level playing field.”

Will Shuff, owner of the 12South Taproom, said the food trucks enrich Nashville’s culinary scene, but he acknowledges they hold the potential to hurt his business.

“It’s kind of annoying that we spend all this money in a high-rental district and they can just roll up and jump on our customer base,” Shuff said. “But you can’t replace what we have. You can’t replace atmosphere.”

Trying to get along

B.J. Lofback, co-owner of Riffs Fine Street Food and president of the Nashville Food Truck Association, said the group welcomes the emerging regulations.

“We actually went to the commission and asked them to update their rules,” Lofback said. “We didn’t want the enforcement of the rules to be open to interpretation.”

Gene Ward, the Traffic and Parking Commission’s chairman, said the conversation about food truck laws has only begun.

“We’ve never really experienced something like this before,” Ward said, referring to the growing ranks of mobile food entrepreneurs. “It may take us several months to go through and weigh both sides.”

Dennis Alpert, the food truck association’s pro bono consultant, said it’s wrong-headed to assume the majority of brick-and-mortar restaurants oppose food trucks.

“If you really look into who is complaining, it’s a minority, but they have loud voices,” Alpert said. (He notes that the association has a handful of traditional restaurants among its members.)

Alpert said the association’s members want to be “good neighbors.”

Growing interest

Gwen Hopkins, spokeswoman for Metro Public Works, said the four pages of proposed regulations, which are now open to public comment, are aimed at easing street congestion and protecting the public.

In all, Nashville has issued licenses to 70 food trucks, and the city usually receives about two applications per week, said local Health Department spokesman Brian Todd.

A $210 application must be renewed every year, Todd said, noting that some vendors go out of business before they have an opportunity to be renewed and reinspected. Lofback’s group represents about 25 of the food trucks.

Taste of Belgium food truck operator Tom Perkins said unambiguous rules would help everyone. “We want to help write them so we’re not regulated out of business,” he said.

The traffic and parking commission meets Sept. 12.

Some observers have called for commission member Brenda Sanderson, owner of several restaurants on honky-tonk row along Lower Broadway, to recuse herself from the discussions and any votes on food truck rules.

Metro Public Works spokeswoman Hopkins said earlier this week that Sanderson plans to withdraw from the entire process, but Sanderson could not be reached for comment by The Tennessean.