Update: Columbia City Council rejected the Restaurant Association’s recommendations in a 5-1 vote Tuesday night. Council instead voted to create a 100-foot buffer zone between traditional restaurants and the food truck vendors.
Food trucks that serve lunch or dinner to passers-by are becoming increasingly popular across the country, but a proposed new law in Columbia is pitting the truck vendors against traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Most of the law deals with safety concerns, but the vendors are upset about one section that would ban them from setting up within 1,500 feet (roughly four city blocks) of a restaurant serving “similar menu items.”
The Columbia Restaurant Association is lobbying for the change, saying that controls need to be put on the trucks. The group is part of the South Carolina Hospitality Association, whose president Tom Sponseller said the trucks have an unfair competitive edge.
“A mobile business can come in, totally shake up a community, put financial harm on some businesses, and then go away to a new location tomorrow,” Sponseller told South Carolina Radio Network. He says the trucks need to be covered in some ways by city zoning laws.
Currently, the trucks have to get the property owner’s permission before they park in a lot. They also have to go through a DHEC inspection the same as any other facility which serves food. They are not normally allowed to set up in a public location, such as a park.
Scott Hall owns the Bone In Artisan Barbecue truck, which drives to different locations in Columbia each day to serve lunch and occasionally dinner. He said the law is too restrictive.
“A little competition, I think, is good,” Hall said, “I think we could stand to have a little more competition in independent restaurants in this town… I feel like the Restuarant Association is really at this point just trying to put up barriers to make it very difficult for us to do business as we have been doing it.”
Hall especially took exception to the 1,500-feet rule. “In my opinion, that’s asinine,” he said, “We sell salads out of the truck… what restaurant doesn’t have a salad on their menu for lunch?” He argued that he would be hard-pressed to find a location in downtown Columbia that was more than four blocks away from another restaurant.
Sponseller said “similar items” means the main food at an establishment, such as spaghetti at an Italian cafe.
There are currently four truck vendors operating in Columbia. One includes a truck operated by the Pawley’s Front Porch restaurant that stays in the parking lot at its namesake’s brick-and-mortar location. Attempts to reach Pawley’s management were unsuccessful.
Hall said he thinks brick-and-mortar restaurants are trying to shut down the trucks to avoid the competition that has begun appearing in the past year, “It would just be a shame if we, within a year of its incarnation, just regulated these things out of existence,” he said.
Sponseller disputed that, saying the Restaurant Association is just concerned about public health as the number of food truck vendors is likely to grow in the coming years. “The minute somebody gets sick, it hurts everybody that sells food,” Sponseller said, “If somebody got sick out of a food truck, it would devastate the other food trucks, because people have a perception that it’s because of the type of environment.”
Less contentious sections of the law would also require the vendors to improve their fire suppression systems and to provide trash cans for their customers.