In its first public discussion of whether or how to allow mobile food vendors to operate within the city limits, the Jacksonville City Council leaned toward only doing so for special events.
Food trucks are booming in larger cities such as Atlanta, and local vendors have been inquiring about how to set up shop in Jacksonville. But city officials have been uncertain how to handle the requests — which building inspector Mark Williams said last week, “come in spurts — we may have three this week and then we may have none for a long time.” Since he took over as building inspector in 2007, he estimates he’s had at least 20 requests to operate within the city.
One such request came from Hillyer Stevenson, who is interested in setting up to serve hot chocolate and other goodies at the city’s Christmas Parade. She told the council Monday night that she only operates at special events such as last month’s Oxfordfest.
Stevenson said she would steer clear of the brick-and-mortar businesses on the square.
“That’s just me though; everybody’s not going to be like that,” she said.
Tyler Marbut of Cecil’s told the council members that on a daily basis, “it’s already slim pickins in Jacksonville” for the number of restaurants lining Alabama 21. But if limited to certain instances, he saw no problem with allowing trucks. “For special events,” he said, “I’d like to get in on that.”
Williams presented the council members with a draft ordinance — a starting point, he said — for them to begin their discussion that would establish a permit for mobile food trucks to conduct business in Jacksonville. But at its work session Monday, the council charged Williams and a yet-to-be named committee of business owners and other interested parties with drafting a new form of the ordinance that would allow mobile food vendors to set up in the city during special events only.
Food trucks have in recent years become popular with customers and with foodie entrepreneurs attracted to the idea of being able to prepare and sell food with lower overhead cost and without being tied to a specific location. That way, they can follow customers to wherever they happen to be hungry.
Many rely on social media to let their fans know where to find their favored fare. The trend has spawned Food Network show The Great Food Truck Race; in its latest season, aspiring entrepreneurs competed in such Southern cities as Fayetteville, Ark., and Nashville to win prize money and their own food truck.
As the food truck invasion has hit Alabama, some local governments have looked to regulate the vehicles. Birmingham officials have been working on such an ordinance for months.
Historically, said Williams, Jacksonville has operated with the understanding that there were no regulations governing food trucks and thus no procedure for authorizing them.
But recently, he said, it was brought to the city’s attention that the code does govern food carts, whose definition includes the mobile food trucks.
State law governs the health and safety requirements for food trucks and requires approval from the County Health Department for their operation.
Greg Stay of Smoke-N-Hot BBQ said his truck is welcomed in most cities locally, but aside from one church event, has not been able to operate in Jacksonville.
“Oxford has opened up their arms to us,” he said. He frequently operates in the parking lots of the city’s retail establishments such as Best Buy. “They call us and ask us to come to try to bring local businesses customers,” he said. The relationships are mutually beneficial, he said, often bringing new customers to each.
In a mobile business such as his, Stay has to keep track of sales tax in each municipality, charging each day based on where he parks. He estimates that with his truck stops and catering, Smoke-N-Hot BBQ generates between $1,500 and $2,100 in sales tax each month.
College towns like Jacksonville throughout the state have taken different approaches to regulating the mobile kitchens. In Auburn and Montevallo, the cities haven’t had enough trucks to really bother with ordinances, officials say.
According to Forrest Cotton, director of planning for the city of Auburn, the city typically sees two or three food trucks operating in the city outside of Auburn University. The bulk of the trucks are regulated by the university. Officials at JSU confirmed Thursday that the university does not allow food trucks to operate on campus due to its contract with Sodexo, its food services provider.
Cotton said the food trucks that do operate in the city typically set up on property where owners have given them permission.
The city requires they have a business license to operate within the city limits and ensure they pay proper taxes, but, he said, “until folks start to complain or until we start seeing more than a few, I’m not inclined to regulate them.”
Troy takes a firmer stance on regulating the businesses. According to Diane Leveque, revenue officer for the city of Troy, food trucks must be approved by the City Council. In order to secure such approval, vendors must show written permission from the property owner where they intend to park, which must be located in a business district. If a truck wants to move to another location, she said, the vendor must go before the council with written permission from the new property owner to secure approval. The truck must also secure a business license from the city.
Food trucks are popping up at events across the region. The city of Smyrna, Ga., has gained a reputation for its Food Truck Tuesdays, a popular event that showcases one of the city’s biggest parks.
“Food Truck Tuesdays has attracted a lot of attention for the city of Smyrna regionally, which we like,” said Jennifer Bennett, community relations director for city. “It has generated a tremendous amount of community pride, too.”
With live music, room for children to play and a variety of food truck fare, the event appeals to a cross-section of the community, added Smyrna City Councilwoman Teri Anulewicz.
Bennett said the trendy food trucks have offered an opportunity for residents and those in surrounding communities to create their own jobs in a tough economy. “I see it as very American,” she said. “It helps us enjoy our community through food in a new and fun way.”
Star Staff Writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.