Opportunities for food trucks considered
By Kevin Elliott
A decade after Birmingham City Commissioners rejected the idea of allowing food trucks to operate in the city, a new commission discussed the possibility of revisiting the issue at their meeting on Monday, June 28.
“I grew up with Good Humor, and it was called Good Humor for a reason: it put a smile on people’s faces,” said commissioner Clinton Baller at the start of the discussion. “I think we are depriving our children in Birmingham of Good Humor. I can’t remember the last time I saw an ice cream truck driving around town. Why we would do that? I don’t know, but that’s the public’s interest.”
City commissioners in 2011 amended code ordinances to allow for approved vendors and peddlers, but not food trucks. The operation of food trucks was strongly opposed by brick and mortar businesses and some residents.
“Well, I’m a resident, and I don’t want to spend $30 on a restaurant meal that’s going to take an hour to consume,” Baller continued. “I want to spend four bucks on a hot dog. And I want to be in and out fast, and I want to walk around with it and I want to make a mess of myself while I’m eating it. I think we could get some quick, cheap food, and get a variety of cuisines, and we could have some fun with it and regulate it so we aren’t making messes and are actually enriching our culture.”
Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker said food trucks are permitted as a temporary use on private property. However, a long list of requirements must be met, such as providing restrooms, using a non-moving structure and limiting operation to 30 days.
The city permits vendor licenses, including ice cream trucks, which are limited to three per year. While ice cream trucks are considered vendors, they don’t violate the city’s ordinance, in that they don’t occupy a public space by being stationary for more than 10 minutes while conducting business.
Commissioner Mark Nickita, who served on the city commission in 2011 when the issue was discussed, said that he was disappointed the city didn’t accommodate food trucks then as a way to activate parks and public spaces, but the concern that food trucks would create unfair competition to permanent restaurants was a concern. And, while he said he is in favor of revisiting the issue, he said the timing may not be appropriate to do it now.
“Is this the time to be reviewing this?” he said. “We have talked at length in the last weeks about outdoor dining with people who are coming off of a really difficult year. With the challenges presented in the past year, I have to question if this is the right time to be adding competition to groups that are already in place, and whether doing that is the right thing to do right now.”
Nickita suggested waiting at least a year to revisit the issue to give existing restaurants time to recover from the pandemic.
Commissioner Therese Longe said she was supportive of the issue, and suggesting looking at it now, as any changes to the ordinance would likely take at least a year.
Commissioner Brad Host encouraged bringing food trucks to Birmingham on a “trial basis” to gauge the public’s support. Further, he said he didn’t view food trucks as competition, as he envisioned them operating outside of the downtown area.
Despite support for a trial of food trucks by some commissioners such as Host, Baller and Longe, Birmingham City Attorney Mary Kucharek said the current ordinances would need to be revised to allow food trucks to be permitted, even on a trial basis.
Commissioner Stuart Sherman, who also served on commission in 2011, noted the current ordinance would allow someone to bring a food truck in to operate on their own property, in a block party situation.
“It would seem to me we already have the means to satisfy commissioner Host’s main point, and that is to allow neighborhoods to get together to bring in a food truck and create that sense of community,” Sherman said. “Knowing that that ability is out there to do a test run, very simply without a lot more discussion, I would follow with commissioner Nickita that this is an issue that could get bogged down at the commission at the current time… it seems to me we have a way to satisfy the neighborhood to make sure the food trucks can be there. We have just given it.”
Sherman suggested holding off on the discussion and encourage those voicing support to utilize food trucks on their private property and provide feedback.
Commissioner Rackeline Hoff said it would be best to know if there’s a demand from the public before inviting food trucks in to operate.
Commissioner Nickiita echoed Hoff’s comment.
“There needs to be a demand for this kind of thing from someone who would actually be interested in implementing it,” Nickita said. “I think it’s very important to consider how much volume you need to make it worthwhile for a business to actually take up a period of time of the day and invest what would be in an opportunity to make money. Having a lot of experience in that area, I know you have great ideas and hopes, but I don’t know of many circumstances in our neighborhood in our general city outside of high-density areas, which are generally downtown, where something like this would be advantageous to a business owner. I’m not saying it’s a terrible idea in that regard, it may work, but I think it’s something that doesn’t have great demand, and you would really need a business to come out and want to do it to actually justify it.”
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus questioned whether commissioners would be interested in allowing food trucks for special events, such as homeowner association gatherings or other events that have a purpose and population. He also noted that containing waste would need to be a priority. He recommended looking at other municipalities that have successfully brought in food trucks.
“As I visit other cities, food trucks are a big part of my experience,” Markus said. “The ethnicity of food varies around the country, and where you really get some exposure to regional cuisines are through the food truck process. It isn’t just about fast food and hot dogs, it’s all sorts of different ethnic foods that make their way into food trucks, and that’s how restaurateurs in many respects enter the restaurant business.
"There may be some ways, with some modifications, that we may be able to do some sort of trial basis to see how this all plays out. Personally, my bet is it would be exceptionally popular, if done the right way.”
Markus was directed to bring back information on how food trucks could be brought in for special events, with public input gathered, and report back to the commission.