Birmingham City Council Goes South on Food Trucks

Birmingham, Ala.’s street food scene is still young, but it’s already cooked up some creative meals. Fresh Off the Bun vends Vietnamese Tacos, while Spoonfed Grill serves quesadillas, goat cheese and cranberry lime turkey burgers. Then there’s Shindigs Catering which offers very upscale lunch fare like “seared quail with grits,” sweet potato buns and burgers with “humanely raised” beef. Too bad Birmingham bureaucrats are trying to crack down on food trucks.

The city council is currently debating a newly proposed 17-page ordinance to regulate food trucks. A vote is expected on December 11. Recently revised, this new ordinance came about after complaints from some owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants. Yet the proposed ordinance is so onerous, a few food truck owners are even threatening to quit vending altogether. Take Mac Russell, co-owner of the Shindigs Catering Truck: “If this goes through, there is no way I'm going with this. I will go a different direction in business other than try to keep up with all the stuff they are trying to get us to do.” Using the power of the state is one way to muscle out the competition.

For starters, the revised ordinance would ban food trucks from selling within 230-foot of an open brick-and-mortar restaurant. Street food vendors could stay no more than two hours in one location, while “suggested hours are 7 to 9 a.m. for breakfast, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for lunch, and 4 to 6 p.m. for dinner.”

In addition, the proposed ordinance would create a “Mobile Food Vendors Committee” from other Birmingham departments and bureaucracies. This committee would be charged with reviewing applications for food trucks. But in order for a food truck to get a permit, it must be approved by every department within that committee, which includes the Traffic Engineering Department, the Planning Engineering and Permits Department, the Police Department, the Economic Development Department and Operation New Birmingham. That’s a lot of departments—talk about red tape.

On top of that, this committee would also be granted, “at its sole discretion,” the power to “limit the number of designated Food Zones within the City Center.” So future bureaucrats could easily shrink the number of areas where it’s legal to be a food truck. That would obviously hurt growth and sales.

Some food truck owners were particularly outraged by the proposed high fees. Vendors would need to a pay a non-refundable $200 application fee and $300 annual fee to operate within city limits. But to vend within the City Center, where most of Birmingham’s foot traffic and offices are, food trucks owners would need to pay an additional $500.

Jason Parkman, who runs the mobile Spoonfed Grill told The Birmingham News, said “It's pretty dadgum egregious. We pay a lot of money as it is already. We don't make a lot of money.”

Some food truck owners have banded together to form the Birmingham Street Food Coalition, to protect mobile food freedom; support their efforts by liking them on Facebook.

-- Nick Sibilla

Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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