By Will Isern | Pensacola News Journal
A food truck rolled in to downtown Pensacola about 10 p.m. Monday night, parked in front of The Vault restaurant on Alcaniz Street, and began serving tacos.
Among the customers who bought one of those tacos was city councilman Larry Johnson, the loudest advocate on the council in calling for an ordinance that would regulate food trucks operating within city limits.
But now, after the council’s most recent failed attempt at passing such an ordinance, Johnson and others are of the opinion that, because they are essentially unregulated, food trucks are technically free to operate wherever they like in the city.
“We don’t have anything on the books,” Johnson said. “If we don’t have anything on the books then I believe they’re unregulated and can operate.”
The food truck that parked in front of The Vault on Monday night, Randy Russell’s Nomadic Eats, was invited there by The Vault’s owner, Sam Miller. Miller said the idea of brick and mortar restaurants being threatened by food trucks is ridiculous.
“Not one cocktail is getting sold out of that food truck,” Miller said. “Anybody downtown selling cocktails or beer and wine should know that that’s where they make their money and a food truck is not going to threaten that.”
Because he had been welcomed to The Vault, Russell’s night selling tacos went smoothly.
“No one came and ran us off,” Russell said.
What might happen if a food truck were to set up in front of a business that didn’t want it there remains unclear.
The one instance where city code does mention “mobile restaurants” was written specifically to allow for the Al Fresco dining area at the corner of Main Street and Palafox Street and actually requires that mobile restaurants be permanently fixed to the ground and use underground utilities.
There is language in the code to regulate itinerant vendors, defined as anyone engaging in “transient business,” and requiring them to obtain a permit, though it is clear that language was never meant for food trucks.
There is also language in the city’s Land Development Code requiring use of the right-of-way be approved by the city’s planning board and the City Council, though again, that language was never intended to apply to food trucks.
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward has already allowed food trucks at City Hall, and city spokesman Vernon Stewart wrote in an email on Friday that the city has been informing food truck owners that they are allowed to operate on city property.
Food trucks can also operate on private property, given they have the property owner’s permission to do so. Johnson recently welcomed The Busy Bee food truck to his bar, The Azalea Cocktail Lounge.
Johnson said he had two lawyers whose names he didn’t want to identify review the city’s codes as they pertain to food trucks
“Their opinion was it’s very gray,” Johnson said. “I believe it’s so vague that they can go wherever they want.”