Nebraska lawmaker revives attempt to support, streamline permits for food trucks
Cars wait for their fare being prepared in a food truck near 48th and Q Streets in Omaha. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examine)
LINCOLN — A proposal in the Nebraska Legislature would cut red tape for food truck owners who face what State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha said is a “patchwork of regulations.”
Legislative Bill 740 by Vargas would require the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to maintain a list of areas that have food truck ordinances and establish a reciprocity agreement for permits between Lancaster, Douglas and Hall Counties.
The hope, Vargas said, is to meet the needs of small business owners who are part of “Main Street America” and many small towns while cutting burdensome costs.
Vargas tried in 2019 to address food truck regulations, but that bill stalled in committee. Now, Vargas and State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island have partnered with the Center for Rural Affairs with a new bill that they say would help food trucks grow and thrive.
“We want to make sure that we’re not making it harder for them to exist as part of the ecosystem,” Vargas said.
Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, said many food trucks start because people want to establish a brick-and-mortar restaurant but first use food trucks to test name recognition and product demand.
Across the state, Hladik said food trucks face more than 600 versions of regulations in 529 municipalities, all 93 counties, multiple health zones and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. Lancaster, Hall and Douglas Counties each has an autonomous health department with high health standards.
“It’s pretty darn difficult for these food truck operators to know what rules they need to follow and to be able to plan for the expenses that a lot of those rules require,” Hladik said.
Rural food truck owners — or those who want to operate in rural Nebraska — also face difficulties in tracking down rules and regulations from part-time village or city clerks, Hladik said.
The bill would require a registry of local ordinances, with links to them and contact information for area officials, Hladik said, establishing a “one-stop shop” for food truck operators.
Hladik said this is also positive for communities because “it’s a sign that they’re open for business,” and Nebraskans will be more confident in supporting food trucks, too.
“It’s some of the best food you’re going to find,” Hladik said. “It offers variety and it offers culture in a way that sometimes isn’t always available in brick-and-mortar restaurants, and it can also offer convenience.”
Scott Sheehan, president of the Omaha Food Truck Association, who used to run the Anthony Piccolo’s food truck, said Omaha at one point didn’t have an ordinance governing food trucks.
At that time, Sheehan said, Omaha allowed just a peddler’s permit — like for the ice cream man — which authorized a truck to sit for 30 minutes before needing to move at least up the street.
Sheehan said food trucks with a hot fryer or grill can’t sustain that movement, so a group successfully asked the Omaha City Council to change that.
‘Arbitrary’ rules and regulations
Tom LeBlanc, former owner of LeBlanc’s BBQ and Cajun, which he and his wife operated in Omaha and in a 150-mile radius that included Iowa for six years, said there has been some “head butting” in the past between city regulations in Lincoln and Omaha, with food trucks caught in the middle.
“It seemed sort of arbitrary that there were these multiple entities that were basically creating their own rules and regulations, and we were looking for some uniformity basically to just make doing business a little bit easier,” LeBlanc said.
Hladik said the legislation could allow the same food truck owners under the same permit to operate at the College World Series in Omaha, Husker football game days in Lincoln and the Nebraska State Fair in Grand Island.
In the past legislative session, Aguilar requested an interim study to identify and fix issues for future legislation, which Aguilar said can provide more tax revenue and gains for an “exploding” business in his community.
“If a business from, say, Lincoln wants to come to Grand Island for the state fair and pitch his tent, heck, yeah, we want him,” Aguilar said.
Going where restaurants can’t
Some restaurants object to food trucks as unfair competition, but LeBlanc said that’s not the food trucks’ business model.
“We want to go where the restaurants can’t go or don’t want to go,” LeBlanc said. “That’s the whole beauty of being mobile, and in our case, we could literally operate our food truck in the middle of a cornfield if we had to.”
LeBlanc said one example is during the COVID-19 pandemic when Omaha homeowners associations started bringing in food trucks to their neighborhoods, which has continued.
Sheehan and LeBlanc are no longer in the food truck business, but Sheehan said Vargas’ legislation can be a “starting point” for more fair operating procedures.
The two pointed to a statewide permit as a possible future goal.
Vargas is optimistic he can get his bill over the finish line.
“We’re excited because we really want and need to do something to meet the needs of this small business group,” Vargas said.
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