Food truck debate reignites in Savannah

Attorney Dana Braun has reignited the controversy over food trucks in Savannah with an excellent guest editorial today in the Savannah Morning News: Savannah entrepreneur leaves for a reason

That piece begins:

Too often the question is asked why do young talented people leave Savannah? Brittney Blackshear is a young, talented entrepreneur who recently left Savannah for a better opportunity in Nashville, Tenn., and from whose story we can learn.

Brittney is a native of Houston who, after graduating from SCAD, took the initiative to start her own catering business, Crepe A Diem, specializing in appetizer, entrée and dessert crepes.

The business was successful and as Brittney says, “It was so rewarding to provide good quality food and see the resulting enjoyment.” Crepe A Diem’s business grew and Britney felt the next logical step in growth was a food truck.

However, there is one major issue. Food trucks are not permitted in Savannah.

By the way, I know Brittney and was sorry that she moved on.

I agree broadly with the thrust of Braun’s editorial. He discusses the various benefits of food trucks and gives some background on how other cities have dealt with them.

I last wrote about food trucks in depth in a blog post — Will Savannah jump on the food truck bandwagon? — that includes links to my related columns from 2011 and to coverage of controversies in other cities. I have also written several times about food trucks in Atlanta and other cities.

Here I’ll make two broad points:

1. Savannah probably isn’t as perfect for food trucks as many think.

Savannah is a small city with relatively low residential density. Even our office sector is far flung. Yes, we have lots of foot traffic from tourists on some days at certain times of year, but Savannah is a pretty quiet place.

As I noted in a column two years ago, if we want to encourage greater street life there are lots of other moves we can make that will likely have a greater effect than food trucks.

2. But Savannah should move ahead and create a framework for legal food trucks. The key steps are easy.

Savannah has a terrible reputation, largely deserved, as a place to start a new business. That’s especially true if that proposed business does not fit into any clear category for the purposes of zoning or permitting.

So let’s create a clear ordinance that allows food trucks, one that is similar to what is being done in Charleston and nearby Mount Pleasant. Click here for a 2012 about policies in Mount Pleasant and click here to see Charleston’s rules on “food cart vending in the public right of way.” Click here to see where Charleston has designated spaces for food vending. Those locations can be semi-permanent through a franchise agreement with the city.

Here are a few simple policies that could be part of an initial ordinance allowing food trucks in Savannah:

  • Food trucks would only be allowed to sell from private property, obviously with the permission of the property owner. (This might seem an unnecessary restriction, but it has worked fine elsewhere, apparently.)
  • Lots being utilized would have to be zoned to allow restaurants.
  • The food trucks would be limited from staying open later than other businesses in the zoning district.
  • The trucks would obviously have to meet all state and local laws. The rules applied to the Atlanta Food Truck Park & Market could obviously supply an appropriate Georgia model.

We don’t have to turn this into rocket science. There would obviously be a problem given the number of municipalities in the county, if a food truck owner wanted to go outside the city limits, but a sensible ordinance could easily be replicated by the county, by cities like Tybee, etc.

Many other cities have already sorted through key controversies and legal language over the past few years. If Savannah officials want to move ahead on this issue, and I think they should, they will only need some minimal study of cities with workable models, like Atlanta, Charleston, and Asheville.