Food trucks: Are more regs needed?

For some time now, mobile food trucks have been a part of our culinary landscape, rolling up at various and varied private locations, offering everything from organic doughnuts, hot dogs, tacos and burritos, hamburgers, BBQ, and more. Indeed, because Charlottesville has no public places where the food trucks are allowed, enterprising operators have had to strike deals with private property owners to survive. The phenomenon has finally caught the attention of City officials, who now want to regulate the mobile eateries, they say, to allow for their continued proliferation.

Matt Rhodie, owner of Carpe Donuts, began parking his popular red doughnut wagon at parking lots around town back in 2008, and Last Call Dogs has been a presence around town since 2009. Currently, there are about a half-dozen mobile food trucks operating in Charlottesville.

So why start regulating them now?

At a recent Planning Commission meeting, City officials laid out an extensive proposal to establish new zoning codes for their continued use on private property, framing it as a desire to embrace and welcome the trend.

"The reason we are working on food truck regs is that at present there are no regulations other than the ones written many years ago to cover ice cream vendors," says neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert. "On most private lots they are not legal."

Tolbert says they have decided not to make enforcement a priority.

"We happen to understand that this community wants to see more of them," he says, "and we are trying to set out some basic rules, but allow as much flexibility as possible."

Some food truck owners, however, say it's a misguided attempt to regulate the business, which will actually make it more difficult for food truck owners to survive.

"This would be a nightmare for vendors," says Rhodie. "We had to move on to private property because we weren't allowed in public places. Now they want to regulate how we operate on private property?"

As Rhodie points out, it's already hard enough to operate a food truck in Charlottesville, given you have to strike up deals with private property owners to get anywhere near where most people congregate, like the Downtown Mall, and even then the locations aren't always ideal.

Indeed, while Rhodie at first tried to locate his doughnut truck at key places in Charlottesville, he now says that most of his business is done outside of Charlottesville, at private functions, festivals, and places as far away as Northern Virginia. Why? Because operating in the City limits was too restrictive.

"I made a success of my business despite the City's restrictions," says Rhodie. "Operating a food truck here is already nearly undoable; now they want to make it harder."

The proposed regulations aren't particularly outrageous, but they would present additional headaches for truck owners. They call for no seating, no trucks longer than 20 feet or taller than 10.5 feet, no signs outside the unit, no playing music. Private property owners allowing a truck on their property would have to obtain a permit. And there would have to be enough parking. Food trucks would be restricted from operating on more than 10 properties. Permits would be renewed every year to allow the City to monitor and review vendor behavior.

But given the fact that food trucks have been operating on private property with no apparent problems or complaints for years, Rhodie wonders why such restrictive measures are needed at all.

"It's a solution without a problem," he says.

But that didn't stop city officials from coming up with some. Indeed, at the recent Planning Commission meeting, officials, while supporting the idea of the trucks, worried about how special-use permits would be issued, how regulations would be enforced, if seating should be allowed or not, what hours the trucks would be allowed to operate, how long they could stay in one place, how trash would be disposed of, and if they would block sidewalks and bike lanes, among other things.

"Are there really people worried or concerned about food trucks?" asks Rhodie. "If the City really wants to embrace and welcome food trucks, they will give us more space to operate, not more restrictions on the limited space we have."

"We understand that locations for food trucks are limited, so we need to maintain the flexibility while looking at how other successful cities deal with them," says Tolbert. "In all cases where folks speak about how great the culture is, there are a few basic rules. That is what we are trying to work through now with the planning commission."

Make those Valentine's Day plans

Here are a few ideas for Valentine's Day you might want to check out. Most require reservations, so be sure to call.

Downtown Grille, three-course prix fixe menu, $48 per person. 434-817-7080

The Glass Haus Kitchen, four-course menu, $40 per person or $145 per couple with a bottle of champagne. 434-244-8439

The Ivy Inn Restaurant, six-course menu, $70 per person. 434-977-1222

Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar, four-course menu for $45. 434- 975-6796

Boar's Head, Old Mill Room, $65 per person. 434-972-2230

L'etoile, three courses for $45. 434-979-7957

Maya, three courses, $50 per person. 434-979-6292

Zynodoa, Valentines Tasting Menu all weekend at the Staunton restaurant, $65 per person, with an optional $32 wine pairing. 540-885-7775

Valentine’s Day Beer Dinner at Blue Mountain Brewery. Five-course dinner paired with Blue Mountain Brewery seasonal brews hosted by brewmaster, Taylor Smack.   7pm. 540-456-8020.

Share the Love Weekend at Trump Winery. Special wine and dessert pairing. $20 per pairing. 11am-6pm. 434-984-4855

Valentine’s Day at Basic Necessities in Nellysford. A special evening with a four-course, fixed-price, champagne dinner. Two seatings, 5:30pm and 7:30pm. 434-361-1766

Valentine’s Day at Cardinal Point. Artisan chocolates made with their wines, special tastings all weekend. 11am-5:30pm. 540-456-8400

Valentine’s Day Dinner at Veritas Vineyard. Five-course, wine-paired meal, then dance the night away in Saddleback Hall. 7pm to 11pm. 540-456-8000

Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards, $150 per person. 540-832-7848