Retail food trucks may soon have a more clearly defined place in Statesboro’s business scene and community life after City Council approved the first reading of a “mobile food service” ordinance Tuesday, sending it forward to possible final approval Dec. 15.
The ordinance also contains rules for pushcarts, but “food trucks,” which include towed vending trailers as well as actual self-propelled trucks, have been the main topic of discussion. The ordinance will allow operators who obtain a health inspection certificate, comply with national fire safety standards, pay an application fee and obtain a permit from city staff to park their trucks on private property where they have written permission and sell prepared foods to the public.
A list of all sites where the trucks operate will also be required for city staff approval.
“I think this is a huge opportunity for small businesses, fledgling entrepreneurs and things of that nature, and I think it’s going to be good for our city,” Mayor Jonathan McCollar said after Tuesday morning’s council meeting. “I can clearly see two or three years from now us having a huge food truck festival where I can go out and stuff my face a little bit.”
For years now, food trucks have appeared along Statesboro’s streets and in parking areas for city-approved special events, such as First Fridays planned by the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority. But otherwise, the trucks and vending trailers are not allowed to operate in the right of ways of public streets and highways, and that won’t change under the ordinance now pending approval.
The previous lack of regulations specific to food trucks has in some ways been more restrictive than permissive, according to some business operators. When food trucks open their windows to customers on private property, city staff members have attempted to apply existing rules for temporary vendors or brick-and-mortar food service establishments.
‘Big Boy’ concerns
One food truck owner and advocate, Hannah Womack, spoke up during both a Nov. 17 council work session and Tuesday’s regular meeting. She and her husband, Jonny Womack, own Big Boy Cookies, which has a brick-and-mortar store in the Midtown Market commercial center, but they started out with a food truck and still operate it.
Hannah Womack is also a nurse who works at East Georgia Regional Medical Center, where she has been part of efforts to bring food trucks to the hospital campus to serve meals to employees while they are working under pandemic conditions. But city staffers had noted that the hospital is in an office zone, where restaurants are not allowed without a variance.
“Whenever we tried to recruit the food trucks to the hospital, per request of the hospital, we kind of hit some barriers,” Womack said after Tuesday’s meeting. “The zoning and stuff like that was an issue. So we’re trying to separate restaurants from food trucks because in the verbiage of the current ordinance restaurants are not allowed in a space that is zoned for offices.”
In all zones
The ordinance as revised by City Attorney Cain Smith for Tuesday’s formal first reading would allow food trucks “to operate in all zoning districts,” he said during the meeting.
“I think that’s extremely important for food trucks … that they would operate in places where brick-and-mortar restaurants are not,” Smith said. “That’s the whole point of them. So we went ahead and clarified that so there’s no ambiguity as to where they are allowed.”
Before the Nov. 17 work session, Womack had been talking to city planning and development officials about a variance to allow food trucks at the hospital. Meanwhile, other city officials had renewed the long stalled drive for a food truck ordinance.
“I started the process of doing an exception so we could have food trucks out for the employees of the hospital who are just working so incredibly hard during COVID and everything. …,” Womack said. “The hospital’s initiative was just to let them know that ‘you guys are appreciated,’ to boost morale, that kind of thing. So I’m hoping that with this new ordinance we can get them out there as quickly as possible.”
But Smith said the push for the new ordinance actually came from the Statesboro Fire Department over concerns about operational safety, and McCollar specifically credited Fire Chief Tim Grams.
“Where this got pushed to the forefront was by our Fire Department,” Smith told the council. “We wanted to make sure that the (National Fire Protection Association) standards were in here. For public safety reasons it’s important, particularly if there’s going to be a clustering of these units, that they all be approved pursuant to the NFPA requirements.”
However, McCollar also called the ordinance “something we’ve been talking about since ’18,” referring to a previous, abortive discussion for a food truck ordinance two years ago.
Smith wrote the first draft of the 2020 ordinance based on those of other Georgia cities, particularly Savannah’s.
Addressing another concern that Womack expressed during the work session, he then amended a section that prohibits a food truck from operating within 200 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It now allows this where the restaurant and food truck have the same owners, and the minimum distance can also be waived with the consent of all restaurants within the 200-foot radius.
The new draft will still prohibit food trucks from having temporary seating if they are within 400 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Pushcarts are not allowed temporary seating at all.
Mobile food service operators will need a permit and inspection certificate from either the Health Department or the Georgia Department of Agriculture. A Statesboro occupational tax certificate is required if the business is based here, or proof of one from another jurisdiction. The pending ordinance also contains rules for signs and prohibits the use of amplified sound from food trucks and push carts.
At the request of council members, Smith had reduced the fines for violating the ordinance from those in the original draft. It now provides a $250 fine for a first offense, $350 for a second offense and $500 and possible revocation of the permit for a third violation within 12 months.
District 3 Councilwoman Venus Mack made the motion for approval of the first reading, seconded by District 2 Councilwoman Paulette Chavers. It passed 4-0, with District 4 Councilman John Riggs absent.
Unlike the fines, the permit fees are not spelled out in the proposed ordinance and would be set by council in a separate action,