Finally, finally, finally the City of Knoxville has finalized the details of its pilot program to allow food trucks to park on city streets downtown. The good news is that it will go into effect on Monday -- as in this coming Monday, April 21. In even better news, the city listened to those of us who wanted to eat at a food truck for dinner and not just lunch and late-night, so one location out of five, the 300 block of Gay Street, will be set aside for trucks to serve from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. (Which is super weird -- no one eats dinner at 4 p.m., but they do eat dinner at 9 p.m. Whatever, we'll take it for now.)
In a concession to food truck owners, the city lowered the planned $500 permit fee to $400, and added a second-tier level $200 fee for food trucks that want to operate only on private property and not on city streets. That's kind of good news, in that the fee was lowered, but it's still kind of bad news for operators. Remember, these permit fees are on top of inspection fees, a regular business permit fee, and health department fees that total $300 or more.
In fact, the $400 fee has Knoxville tied for tenth place in the country for the most expensive permits for food trucks. In addition, as it stands right now, food trucks don't have to pay any additional fee to operate on private property, as long it's zoned for commercial use -- that's why there are regularly food trucks at places like Bearden Beer Market.
Byron Sambat of the Savory and Sweet Truck says he's not bothered by having to pay some kind of fee, since it will keep fly-by-night operators from impacting the reputation of the other vendors. But he's still concerned that numbers are too high, especially compared to the Nashville pilot program that Knoxville's is ostensibly based on. That city charges a $55 application fee and nothing else.
"I'm pretty sure this is going to limit the number of trucks downtown," Sambat says.
Sambat also notes that a requirement of the permit is for vendors to increase their insurance liability to be in line with brick-and-mortar restaurants that have patios. He says the people to whom he's talked have had their policies increase by several hundred to over a thousand dollars.
"A $3 million umbrella insurance policy seems a little much. We think we shouldn't have to carry that," Sambat says.
City spokesperson Eric Vreeland says food trucks will have a grace period of "a month or two" to comply with the new regulations and permitting fees. He says the $200 and $400 numbers were "based on an estimate of staff time involved dealing with the permits" and the number of departments -- electrical, stormwater, etc. -- that have to approve a truck's set-up. When questioned as to why Knoxville's fees are dramatically higher than Nashville's, despite the larger number of food trucks in the latter city, Vreeland didn't have much of an explanation.
"Just because we looked at best practices around the country, it doesn't mean we're in lockstep with their fee structure," Vreeland says. "I think if you talk to a number of restaurants downtown, they'll tell you that the fees should have been higher."
Still, since the pilot program is just that, there's a good chance the regulations will be tweaked after the one-year trial period (if not sooner).
"I think a lot of this is just going to be trial and error. I do think the city is open to making changes in the future," Sambat says.
It will be interesting to see if the new fees drive the more marginal food truck vendors, like the late-night taco trucks, out of business. (We hope not.) If you want all the gory details on the regulations, you should head over to the city's website, but here's the press release with the summary.
RULES AND ZONES SET FOR FOOD TRUCK PILOT PROGRAMAfter incorporating feedback from a public meeting in March, the City of Knoxville has set rules and zones for a pilot program for mobile food vendors within City limits. The City is now accepting permit applications from food truck operators, and signs will be erected at parking spaces in five downtown zones by Monday, April 21.Vendors can apply for one of two permits. For an annual fee of $200, a permit will allow a food truck to operate on appropriately zoned private property (with permission from the property owner). For an annual fee of $400, a permit will allow them to operate both on private property and in designated zones and hours on City streets."What we heard from a few vendors is that some of them weren't interested in operating in public right-of-way at all," said Patricia Robledo, the City's Business Liaison. "So we created a second tier for people who only operate on private property."The designated public zones and hours have also been changed based on feedback from the Knoxville Mobile Restaurant Association. Two zones - at Locust Street and Cumberland Avenue, and along Depot Avenue - have been put on hold and will be added on at a later date based on interest and demand. The hours for two of the remaining five zones have been expanded: On the 200 Block of South Gay Street, food trucks will be able to operate from 6-10 a.m. in addition to 10 p.m.-2 a.m.; and on the 300 Block of South Gay Street, evening hours have been added from 4-8 p.m."What this means is that zones are available to vendors who want to serve breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night crowds," Robledo said. "That's good for them, and it also helps provide more options for downtown visitors and residents."For a complete list of the zones and hours, along with all the pilot program rules, see http://www.cityofknoxville.org/business/mobilefood.asp.