When food trucks first started appearing in downtown Knoxville last year, there was a lot of confusion. There were trucks at First Friday and the Wednesday Market Square Farmer's Market before the trucks' owners were told in no uncertain terms that what they were doing was illegal.
Park on the street when it's already closed off for vendors at the market Saturday? Totally cool. Park on the Square for special events for which you've got a permit? Great. Park in a private parking lot with the permission of the owner (and, often, a fee to use those spaces)? Fine and dandy. But park on the street, the sidewalk, the Square, or any other place in town considered to be in the city right-of-way, including public parks? No way, no how.
The reason for the street ban was not, as some have thought, that the city has a problem with food trucks—they don't (that is, as long as you've got your business and health department permits in order). The problem is with the city's ordinance regulating food vendors, which dates from 1960 and was written to regulate hot dog carts and fair food at festivals.
In February, the city announced it was looking into starting a pilot program to allow food trucks to actually park on the streets—that is, in certain specific locations downtown and elsewhere. City of Knoxville Downtown Coordinator Rick Emmett said at the time that he hoped to have an ordinance before Council in March or April.
Spring came and went. Finally, on July 31, city officials held a meeting regarding the food truck policies. Several food truck owners thought the city would roll out a draft of what the Knoxville ordinance might look like. Instead, some say they left more confused than ever.
At the meeting, Emmett, Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons, and the head of the city's office of business support, Patricia Robledo, said that Knoxville's ordinance would likely be based on Nashville's, which restricts downtown food truck vendors to certain blocks of certain streets at certain times. What streets and what times? They don't know. Would trucks pay the meters or have a special parking permit? They don't know.
Outside the Central Business Improvement District, food trucks would be required to park 50 to 300 feet—the city hasn't decided yet—from any brick and mortar restaurant unless they had that establishment's written permission. They would need to post their locations daily with the city, so as to easily be available for impromptu health inspections. And they would likely have to purchase a new food-truck-specific license to operate, on top of the licenses they already have.
It should be noted that the city hasn't decided on anything yet—in fact, at the meeting, none of the officials present seemed to have done much research, so what eventually goes before Council could be something entirely different. Two weeks later, Robledo says the city is "still in a information gathering stage," and she won't say if the ordinance will even get written by the end of the year.
However, Robledo and Emmett will say that the city is considering convening an advisory council of city officials, restaurant owners, and food truck operators to hopefully iron out some of the thornier issues, like the proposed zones and distance requirements.
"We're trying to find a balance," Emmett says. "We want the least controversy possible."
What Emmett is referring to is the protracted battles that have gone on in other cities around the country as they, too, have struggled with adapting their outdated laws to deal with the new influx of street food. Restaurant owners complain that food trucks hurt their business and that the trucks' ability to go somewhere else if business is slow is an unfair advantage, and they have petitioned in some cities for distance requirements up to 1,000 feet.
That's a mistake, says Robert Frommer, a lawyer with the non-profit libertarian public interest Institute for Justice.
"It's not the government's role to make those kind of compromises," Frommer says. "Competition is the American way."
As Frommer points out, restaurants aren't restricted from locating next to each other—on Market Square, for instance, many share a wall.
"Proximity restrictions are flatly unconstitutional," Frommer says, citing a 6th Circuit Court case, Craigmiles v. Giles, that found "that protecting a discrete interest group from economic competition is not a legitimate government purpose."
On behalf of the Institute's National Street Vending Initiative, Frommer has sued both the cities of El Paso and Chicago over its distance requirements for food trucks. (The El Paso case was dropped after the city got rid of its 1,000-foot distance requirement; the Chicago case, over a 300-foot requirement, is still pending.) And in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu vetoed an ordinance with a 200-foot requirement, citing its unconstitutionality. The ordinance the city finally passed in July has no buffer zone.
Dustin Busby, the co-owner and chef of the Hoof truck in Knoxville, says he understands the concerns of restaurants but finds the limits and proposed zones downtown "a little strange."
"It doesn't seem right that they can slap special regulations on us," Busby says. "I totally understand being limited as to where we can go for public safety reasons or traffic reasons. But just because some restaurants don't want us near them?"
Brandon Wilson, of the soon-to-open Gonzo Gourmet truck, agrees.
"I think that would be completely unfair. I don't think we should be treated any differently than any other businesses," Wilson says.
Food trucks actually go through all the exact same licensing and regulations that restaurants do. Like restaurants, they have liability insurance. While they don't pay rent, they do often pay property taxes on the commissary kitchens they're required to have to prepare food off-site. They also pay a lot for gas and auto maintenance, and they can't buy cheap food in bulk from Sysco or pad their profits with alcohol sales like many restaurants.
"I think if restaurant owners saw all the variables and saw how difficult it was, their attitudes would change," says Edwin Wong, who owns the Petro's truck with his brother.
The city won't really say how strongly it's leaning towards a distance requirement, although the Nashville ordinance they keep talking about does have a 50-foot boundary outside of downtown. (According to press reports at the time, that requirement didn't generate very much controversy.) When first asked about it, Emmett was unaware that any cities didn't have a distance requirement—he hadn't heard about the battles in New Orleans or read that Los Angeles, the birthplace of the contemporary food truck craze, has never had a distance requirement.
When we later asked the city if they were aware of the lawsuits against El Paso and Chicago, spokesperson Angela Starke sent the following statement:
"I think we need to stress that we don't have an ordinance yet, we are in the nascent stages of a potential pilot program and there is still research to be done—as well as more outreach to the public. While early research has shown that there are distance requirements in some of our peer cities, this is still an issue that we have to review. Our Law Department, in drafting any ordinance, would advise us about whether the distance requirement is unconstitutional."
Still, not all food truck owners are opposed to the distance regulation. Wong says he's fine with it, as long as the city tweaks the wording in its zoning. (Last year when Wong was trying to sell food one game day on the Strip, in a Regions Bank parking lot in which he had obtained permission to be, he was told by police that since his truck was parked in the bank lot, it was considered "retail sales" and not an "eating or drinking establishment" and as such, he wasn't permitted to sell his food.)
Emmett says he hopes the new ordinance will clarify zoning regulations, but he's not sure yet exactly how. He says the more they look into things, the more issues they find.
"There's some more research we've got to do," Emmett adds. "I'd like to get it as right as we can the first time around."