The Metro Traffic and Parking Commission Monday afternoon deferred a decision on mobile food vending regulations for at least another month, saying issues beyond traffic flow and safety needed to be addressed and citing an email request by the Tennessee Hospitality Association.
Currently, no regulations exist for food trucks, which have been a growing trend in Nashville and around the country. As Nashville’s food truck population has grown, the need for official guidelines has arisen along with the complaints of some brick-and-mortar restaurant owners, who say the mobile vendors have an unfair advantage.
At Monday’s meeting, the commission welcomed public comment on a set of draft regulations, posted on their website. Commission chair Gene Ward requested that speakers focus their comments on the draft regulations and avoid rehashing discussions heard at previous meetings. As a result, the discussion did not last long.
As he has at two previous meetings, Nashville Food Truck Association president and Riffs Fine Street Food owner B.J. Lofback came forward to speak on behalf of mobile vendors. He told the commission that the draft regulations seemed to favor brick-and-mortar establishments.
As they appear now, the draft regulations would, among other things, prohibit mobile vending in certain areas and at certain times. The bulk of prohibited streets are located downtown, essentially creating a central business district where food trucks are not allowed.
“We’re looking for some consistency,” Lofback said, after the commission’s discussion of the matter had ended. “I’m trying to understand the rationale for the creation of a central business district. It seems anti-food truck.”
The commission has repeatedly asserted that they cannot take the competition between traditional restaurants and food trucks into account when it comes to drafting regulations. But competition has been the most popular topic when it comes to public comment on the matter. In his comments to the commission, Lofback said that while safety concerns have continually been raised, he’s seen no evidence or studies to show such a problem would exist.
Others on the side of mobile vendors say competition is the real concern. Dennis W. Alpert, president of Hidden Bay Group, LLC., got involved as an early organizer and is currently an advisor to the Nashville Food Truck Association. He said he doesn’t see the difference between a line forming on a Broadway sidewalk for a food truck, parked in a legal parking spot, and the crowds that currently line up to get into Nashville’s honkey tonks.
Moreover, he said, it’s what the people want. “These guys are a vibrant part of the city,” he said. “The people want it. The mayor likes them. What’s the problem?”
Alpert echoed Lofback’s statement to the commission that this is a “David versus Goliath situation,” referring to the larger resources and contacts available to brick-and-mortar owners, including high-priced attorneys and lobbyists. At previous meetings attorney’s Tom White and Adam Dread have spoken on behalf of separate groups of downtown restaurant owners.
At a September 12 commission meeting, a Tennessee Hospitality Association representative announced that the association’s board of directors had voted to allow food trucks to join its ranks, which include many of Nashville’s traditional brick-and-mortar establishments as well.
Monday, Metro Public Works Department traffic engineer Chip Knauf referenced an email from the Tennessee Hospitality Association requesting that the issue be deferred. Reached by email late Monday, Greg Adkins, CEO of the hospitality association, explained the group's request.
"Overall, at this point in the Traffic and Parking Commission discussions we felt that we needed more time to get feedback from members and clarification on the regulation," Adkins said. "The two items that I can confirm is the Association is working on making a new category for food truck vendors to become members of TnHA and also have been in discussions on a 'win, win' regulation with the food truck association and our members."