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VOL. 40 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 15, 2016

Nashville food truck safety regulations serve as model for Knoxville

By Hollie Deese

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Two separate food truck owners share kitchen space for preparing meals along with many other food business owners at Citizen Kitchens.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Nashville has created a workable, legal and safe system for food trucks, so successful, in fact, that Knoxville has followed the Music City model.

In both cities, food safety is a priority with trucks being inspected for health violations just like restaurants.

But Tennessee’s food truck businesses weren’t always as well-regulated. Basically, Metro officials had to start from scratch.

In 2011, when Dallas Shaw began operating his Nashville-based food truck Hoss’ Loaded Burgers, he was one of just a handful of trucks trying to navigate the rules of the mobile-eatery road.

It wasn’t easy, but being a pioneer in anything requires a lot of hard work, and Shaw put in the hours to make sure his truck was legal and licensed, in addition to serving safe and delicious food.

“It was definitely a challenge back in 2011,” Shaw says. “There were only a couple food trucks on the road.’’

He says there was little information “about where is the office for getting a business license, or getting approved by the health department, or getting the fire department approval. Now, it’s a pretty established process. You know exactly where you need to go.’”

Today, Shaw is president of the 70-member strong Nashville Food Truck Association, with 10 more hoping to be voted in at the next meeting.

Shaw compiled all the information future trucks would need, and the NFTA has an information packet available on their website at a cost of $150 with government contacts, health department regulation information, water department regulations, how to serve in the downtown food truck zones and more.

“We’re trying to make it easy to help up-and-coming food trucks, or food truck owners,” Shaw adds. “We want to help build the industry in a positive way, and the best way to do that is to make sure that the new trucks that are coming on the road are good trucks, quality trucks.

“That they are going to have all the permits they should, that they’re not operating illegally.”

Conquering growing pains

Metro Nashville launched a food truck pilot program in April 2012 to provide evaluative data for a successful mobile food vendor program. It was initially operated under a temporary permit issued by the Metro Public Works Permit Office for two specified zones, the downtown core and then outside the core.

Today, applicants for a Mobile Food Vendor Permit in Nashville must obtain multiple permits and pass inspections in order to operate in Metro Nashville.

Shaw says that about every three months there are about six to 10 new trucks that are trying to come into the NFTA organization, and they welcome any of the owners who agree to operate safely and legally.

It’s a far cry from when Shaw went door to door soliciting menus to anyone who would allow him to park his truck in their lot.

“There were no established zones back then,” he explains.

“Now, offices call me wanting us to come. Things have changed dramatically, from what it was in 2011 to what it is now.

“Some of the trucks coming out now don’t realize all the backend work that the original food trucks really had to put in to establish food trucks as a vital place for people to want to eat from.”

Knoxville jumps in

Based on the success of Nashville’s food truck pilot program, the City of Knoxville implemented a two-year pilot program of its own, modeled after Music City’s.

Patricia Robledo is the city’s business liaison and handles food trucks as part of her job, a position created by Mayor Madeline Rogero to help facilitate the needs of food truck owners navigating the ordinances of the city of Knoxville.

Before the pilot program, there was no vending allowed in public rights of way, no real standards and little viable opportunities to operate.

“The city of Nashville was very gracious to share with us their process and we adopted some of those things and we created what we thought was a good pilot program,” Robledo says.

“We worked with an advisory group to come up with something that we know that we could take to the public. We had it for two years, kind of evaluating to see what worked and what didn’t work.”

A permanent Mobile Food Unit ordinance was drafted late last year based on the data from the pilot program, and after public feedback and a series of amendments, was adopted on April 26.

The permanent ordinance replaced the regulations set up for the pilot program, which continues to allow mobile food vendors to operate where they had been, and also expanded the program to allow food trucks in other districts under closely-regulated conditions.

Permit fees were also reduced as part of the new ordinance in Knoxville.

The pilot program had included a tiered fee system; food trucks operating only on private property paid $200 annually, and those operating on private property and in designated zones in the public right-of-way paid $400 annually. Under the new ordinance, trucks will pay an initial $200 annual fee and an annual $50 renewal fee.

Robledo says food truck operators who have never run a business before can get overwhelmed.

She recommends they take advantage of any resources available to them, like the free startup class by the Tennessee Small Business Development Center which gives owners an overview of how to start a business and the different legal entities and insurance and licenses they may need.

“If they have they ever been in the food industry, it’s a tough business model,” Robledo explains. “They have to be very creative and a lot of them don’t really foresee how challenging it is.

“And once we came with a list of standards that we want our food trucks to meet, I think it was challenging for some of those who had been operating before the pilot program to make changes to come into the program. That has been a challenge for some.”

Robledo says they require food trucks to have insurance, that they be inspected by the electric and fire inspectors and that they have a copy of their Department of Health permit. They also connect them with the Knoxville Utilities Board to work with them on a grease control permit and disposal plan.

“It’s not okay to go back home and dump everything down the drain,” she explains.

Held to same standards

Environmental specialists from the Metro Nashville Department of Health visit food trucks at least twice a year, usually between January and June and again between July and December.

“We have the same surprise visits,” Shaw says. “They don’t let us know when they’re coming, so there’s no way to really plan. We could be out at a big event, and they could come through and get everybody at one time.

“They’ll bring two or three of the inspectors and then just go down the line and get 20 people at one time, rather than trying to go find one every hour of the day.”

And now visits include making sure trucks are up-to-date on the new changes being implemented in compliance with the FDA, including no bare handling of food ever and making sure there is a plan on file when dealing with sick employees.

“There’s nothing different for a food truck health inspection from a restaurant health inspection, other than, it’s faster,” Shaw adds. “We have obviously less space, less things for them to check.”

Kevin Clark, food program manager with the Knox County Health Department, says food trucks are in a slightly different playing field but still working off the same food code.

“We’re in constant contact with the state and speak with the program director with the Department of Health quite a bit,” Clark says. “We have monthly phone calls or we talk about food trends, what’s going on, inspections.”

Robledo says securing all the right permits is well worth it for the trucks who go through the effort.

“A lot of larger employers are using them,” she points out.

“We expanded a little bit into some of our parks in the city. We expanded into other areas, private parking lots and commercial zones and such. We have a lot of special events and a lot of them participate that way.

“On top of that we did create some zones in the downtown area in the right of way where they can operate.”

Knoxville now has about 35 permitted trucks, with more in the process of being regulated. But it hasn’t been all open arms for the influx of mobile food businesses in the area, though Robledo says they tried to keep in mind all competing interests when coming up with the ordinance.

“At the beginning it was the brick and mortars that were like ‘Hey, wait a minute,’” she says. “Then towards the end of the ordinance when we were doing permanent adoption, it was neighborhood groups upset that we had expanded the zoning of where they could operate. But the employers see it as a plus to be able to have that as an option for their employees to come out and have a food truck and not have to leave in their car.”

Some people also had issue with the presence of barbecue smokers with some mobile food units being too close to neighborhoods.

“There was quite a bit of discussion but at the end it got adopted,” Robledo says. “It’s worked out well, and I haven’t received any complaints.”

Shaw says there are definitely pros and cons to having as many trucks as Nashville does. One plus – high quality and standards.

“Competition just leads to better trucks,” he explains. “It forces you to do better. If another burger truck comes on the scene, of course there are plenty of opportunities for both of us in town, but if they’re doing something innovative it’s going to force me to want to do something innovative to try to stay relevant.

“Those who really outshine the others, they’re going to be the ones still on the road.”

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