Mobile food vendors frustrated as regulations slog through Metro

Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Steven Hale

B.J. Lofback is excited, but exhausted. Speaking after Wednesday’s Music Row Food Truck Rally to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank, he’s enthusiastic about the hundreds of mobile-food fans who came out and how his truck, Riffs Fine Street Food, handled the business, 117 meals to be exact.  

A generally upbeat guy, Lofback’s mood isn’t dampened when the subject changes to the increasingly sluggish development of mobile food vending regulations in Nashville. But he is somewhat perplexed. Asked about some confusion resulting from the latest deferral of the issue by Metro’s Traffic and Parking Commission, his response was quick.

“I echo that confusion,” he said.

Food on wheels has been a growing trend, nationally and locally, for some time now. The present kerfuffle in Nashville started in early July, when a Nashville Scene cover story on the city’s food-truck explosion identified some local restaurant owners with concerns about trucks pulling up and picking off customers.

The topic of mobile food vending regulations has appeared on the agenda of each Traffic and Parking Commission meeting since then and each time it has been deferred. In between meetings, the commission has posted draft regulations on its website, but as they meet only once a month, the process has been slow going.

Leading up to last Monday’s meeting, there had been hope in some quarters that the regulations might be put to a vote. Instead they were deferred again, with the commission citing an email request from the Tennessee Hospitality Association and the need to address issues beyond the commission’s jurisdiction within Metro. 

All along, the commission has stated that it cannot base regulations on so-called fairness concerns about competition between food trucks and brick-and-mortar establishments. Nonetheless, public comment on the matter, which has been allowed for at each of the commission meetings, has revolved around such concerns. 

While this month’s deferral might be frustrating in one sense, for Lofback, it may represent progress of a kind in another — a chance to end a kind of doublespeak that he believes has plagued the proceedings thus far. 

“We keep talking about ‘safety,’ he said, “but what we’re describing is competition.” 

As for the sense in which another delay is frustrating, Lofback said that also involves communication. 

“We get the feeling there are things going on around us, but we’re not really sure what it is,” he said. “It seems like there’s a lot of talking going on, just not to us.”

Whatever conversations may be going on behind closed doors, when the media calls, those on the mobile side of the debate are doing most of the talking. Members of the brick-and-mortar community have been less inclined to speak publicly on the matter, as of late, opting for representation by attorneys or lobbyists. 

Attorney Tom White spoke at the commission meeting in September on behalf of the owners of The Arcade. Speaking by phone with The City Paper last week, he reiterated the points he made to the commission.

“The principal issue here is a safety issue,” he said, referring to the on street parking that exists on all four sides of The Arcade.

White said safety is the No. 1 issue, but added that there is a secondary matter that has to do with fairness. Tenants in The Arcade have a fixed overhead he said — an expensive one, given their location — while mobile vendors can pull up at peak hours and drive away, after taking would-be Arcade customers.   

Randy Rayburn, who has been in attendance at commission meetings on the issue and owns Sunset Grill, Midtown Cafe and Cabana, responded by email, referring The City Paper to lobbyist and spokesman for the hospitality association, Matt Scanlan.  

Last month, a representative from the association told the commission that its board had voted to include food truck operators — who have already grouped together to form the Nashville Food Truck Association, with Lofback as president — as members of the association. 

Reached by email after last week’s commission meeting, Greg Adkins, CEO of the hospitality association, said they’re “working on making a new category for food truck vendors to become members of TnHA,” adding that the association has been discussing ways to make the regulations a “win, win” for “the food truck association and our members.” 

Asked to elaborate on the “new category for food truck vendors,” Scanlan told The City Paper that’s still being worked out. For now, he said, the association has asked for additional time to look at what other cities have done with respect to regulating food trucks on their streets. (An August story in The City Paper did just that, finding that cities across the country have found ways to successfully handle food-truck populations much larger than Nashville’s.) 

Scanlan also commented on a possibility alluded to by the commission at last week’s meeting. 

“It’s possible that these issues are more complex and may involve other parts of Metro government,” he said.

Indeed, it now seems that the ongoing discussion will expand beyond monthly commission meetings at the Howard Office Building, with at least some possibility of landing in front of the newly elected city council. Metro public works spokeswoman Gwen Hopkins-Glascock told The City Paper that was the primary reason for a third deferral of the issue. 

“The entire commission feels like we needed more time to let the issue be looked at by other entities,” she said. “There are other Metro agencies that could have involvement in [regulations].” 

Those other agencies could include the fire, health and codes departments. With regards to any involvement from the city council, Hopkins-Glascock said it’s possible, but that she’s in no position to say for sure. 

If the issue isn’t safety, White believes it’s headed to the council.

For the hospitality association’s part, Scanlan said they’re not approaching the matter as a “competition” issue. Likewise, the commission has maintained a stance of washed-hands on that word. Asked if a regulatory body should deal with competition, Lofback has another quick answer. 

“Who regulates competition?” he said. “Who decides that? 

Put like that, not many officials are lining up. But if the issue isn’t solely traffic and parking, nor is it competition, what is the issue? Responding by email, Scanlan again tried to place the hospitality association above the fray.

“These regulations are not being pushed by us. The TnHA did not ask anyone to look at this,” he said. “We are just responding to these regulations as they come out.”

Scanlan also repeated the two words all sides have been willing to say a lot — “win, win” — as the ultimate goal of the hospitality association. 

In response to that, Lofback was affable, as usual. But his tone suggests he might be employing a little diplomacy of his own.

“That would be wonderful,” he said.  

4 Comments on this post:

By: Loner on 10/17/11 at 8:20

I believe that the delay is being caused by a combination of factors; Steven Hale's report touched upon some of the meaty aspects of this rather unsavory gastro-political debate.

Seems like what we have here is a bunch of good and noble reasons and some obscure and less noble real reasons for governmental intrusion.

Is this a safety and parking issue, a public health issue or something reasonable like that, or is this a matter of manipulating the free marketplace, by way of government regulations that benefit one interest group, at the expense of another interest group?

Is this "kerfuffle" a matter of safeguarding and optimizing the public's interests, or is this a matter of elected officials kowtowing to powerful special interests?

By: tomba1 on 10/17/11 at 9:35

Just get ALL of these private vendors, trucks or carts or stands or whatever, off of ALL public right of way and guess what, discussion ends by allowing public and taxpayer safety and convenience to be better served. Those areas are owned by the taxpaying public and should be managed and maintained to serve the needs of the owners, not those of any private business. Transient vendors setup all around town on private property, presumably with the owner's permission or invitation, so why should more urban areas be treated any differently?

By: Leazee on 10/18/11 at 9:44

Go to Portland OR to observe how a real "foodie" town makes it work. The city has over 600 food trucks and they happily co-exist with some of the best restaurants in the country.

By: Nash1234 on 10/19/11 at 9:17

OK, lets take Portland, OR as an example. They do not allow a mobile truck within 100 feet of any restaurant market, or flower show without the permission of the owner. Portland also does not let a vendor conduct business adjacent to a residential property for more than 10 minutes.

Before we just start throwning out random cities to model our code after, lets take a hard look at what those actually say.