Nebraska Legislature Relaunches Attempt to Uphold and Simplify Food Truck Permits
LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) – A proposal in the Nebraska Legislature would cut red tape for food truck owners facing what Omaha State Sen. Tony Vargas called a “patchwork of regulations.”
Vargas’ Legislative Bill 740 would require the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to maintain a list of areas that have food truck ordinances and establish a permit reciprocity agreement 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 reducing burdensome costs.
Vargas tried in 2019 to address the food truck regulations, but that bill stalled in committee. Now, Vargas and State Senator Ray Aguilar of Grand Island have partnered with the Center for Rural Affairs on a new bill that they say would help food trucks grow and thrive.
“We want to make sure we don’t make it more difficult 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 open a physical restaurant, but first use the food trucks to test name recognition and product demand.
Statewide, 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 have a self-contained health department with high health standards.
“It’s damn hard for these food truck operators to know what rules they have to follow and be able to plan for the expenses that many of these rules require,” Hladik said.
Rural food truck owners — or those who want to operate in rural Nebraska — also face difficulty tracing rules and regulations from part-time village or city employees, 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 good for communities because “it’s a sign they’re open for business” and Nebraskans will also be more confident in supporting food trucks.
“It’s one of the best foods you’ll find,” Hladik said. “It offers variety and it offers culture in a way that is sometimes not always available in physical restaurants, and it can also offer convenience.”
Scott Sheehan, president of the Omaha Food Truck Association, which operated Anthony Piccolo’s food truck, said at one point Omaha did not have an ordinance governing food trucks.
At the time, Sheehan said, Omaha only allowed a street vendor’s permission — as with the ice cream vendor — which would allow a truck to stop for 30 minutes before it had to at least move down the street.
Sheehan said food trucks with a deep fryer or hot grill can’t support that move, so a group successfully applied to the Omaha City Council to change it.
‘Arbitrary’ rules and regulations
Tom LeBlanc, former owner of LeBlanc’s BBQ and Cajun, which he and his wife ran in Omaha and a 150-mile radius that included Iowa for six years, said there had been some “fighting” between the city regulations in Lincoln and Omaha, with food trucks caught in the middle.
“It felt a little arbitrary that there were these multiple entities that were basically creating their own rules and regulations, and we were looking for a little bit of uniformity basically just to make it a little bit easier to do business,” LeBlanc said.
Hladik said the legislation could allow the same food truck owners with the same permit to operate at the College World Series in Omaha, Husker football game days in Lincoln and the Nebraska State Fair on Grand Island.
In the last legislative session, Aguilar called for an interim study to identify and fix problems for future legislation, which Aguilar says can provide more tax revenue and income for an “explosive” business in his community.
“If a company from, say, Lincoln wants to come to Grand Island for the state fair and pitch its tent, heck, yeah, we do,” Aguilar said.
Go where restaurants can’t
Some restaurants object to food trucks as unfair competition, but LeBlanc said that’s not the food truck business model.
“We want to go where restaurants can’t go or don’t want to go,” LeBlanc said. “That’s all the beauty of being mobile, and in our case, we could literally operate our food truck in the middle of a cornfield if needed.”
LeBlanc said one example is during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Omaha homeowners’ associations began bringing food trucks into their neighborhoods, which has continued.
Sheehan and LeBlanc are no longer in the food truck business, but Sheehan said the Vargas legislation can be a “starting point” for fairer operating procedures.
The two pointed to a statewide permit as a possible future goal.
Vargas is optimistic that he can take the bill over the finish line.
“We are excited because we really want and must do something to meet the needs of this small group of companies,” said Vargas.
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