Nashville: Food Truck Operators & Business Owners make their case as the City Considers New Regulations

Riff Fine Street Food of Nashville

by Steve Haruch | NashvilleScene

Riff Fine Street Food of Nashville

Truck Talk

With food trucks proliferating, some established brick-and-mortar businesses bristling, and clear city guidelines absent, the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission took up the regulation of food trucks on Nashville streets at a public hearing Monday afternoon. While they reached no conclusions, the proceedings seemed constructive and thoughtful.

“We want to hear your comments,” commission chair Gene Ward said several times, inviting speakers to the podium (as long as they kept to the three-minute time limit).

The M.H. Howard Conference Room was full, and food-truck vendors — many of whom had met hours before the hearing to discuss how they would present their case — were well-represented and well-rehearsed.

“We welcome regulation,” said B.J. Lofback of Riff’s Fine Street Food, as he addressed the commissioners — joined by two Metro police representatives — who sat with an image of a food truck projected above them. Lofback also asked rhetorically why brick-and-mortar restaurants “deserve special protection.” (One commissioner would later comment that he, at least, was not concerned with interrupting the flow of commerce — “business is business,” he said, adding that gas stations often position themselves directly opposite other gas stations.) Lofback introduced a central theme of the food truck owners’ comments: Just give us clear guidelines, and we will follow them.

Several brick-and-mortar business owners also spoke, including the manager of the downtown Margaritaville franchise, who asked that the commission consider the size of the city and how many food trucks it can reasonably sustain. This was in part a response to Lofback’s invocation of newly adopted regulations in Seattle — one of several cities held up as possible models for Nashville’s new regulations. (Austin, Baltimore and Portland, Ore., are three others.) Another downtown building owner cited incidents of food trucks blocking the entrances to her property.

Attorney Adam Dread, speaking on behalf of a group of downtown businesses that includes Tootsie’s, said his clients represent “the middle” of the debate. While recognizing that mobile vendors “add a lot to downtown,” Dread urged the commission to recognize that businesses in the area pay some $91,000 in property taxes, and offered this advice for devising the rules: “Take your time.” (He also requested that commissioner Brenda Sanderson, an owner of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, recuse herself from voting on the issue.)

“I admire everyone out here,” commissioner Feller Brown said after the public comments ended. Here, he said, addressing the food truck operators, were people who “put their heart and soul into their machines.”

Speaking for many who have tried to sort through this complex issue — and speaking to the clear need for updated regulations — commissioner Breonus Mitchell Sr. said at one point, “I’m lost. Where can they be, and where can’t they be?” Metro Public Works‘ Chip Knauf acknowledged the grayness of the area in question — where a thicket of existing regulations doesn’t exactly address mobile food truck businesses — and said the department plans to post draft guidelines on its website in two weeks, at which point they’ll welcome public comment.

“The commission will take no action today,” chair Gene Ward said, shortly before the room cleared almost entirely. The next public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12.