The advent of Food Trucks and their culture throughout the US has proved a miraculous thing; excitement and creativity in the culinary industry has never been higher, burgeoning entrepreneurs have found a new means to express themselves, and many a city has found great benefit in working alongside these mobile dishers of flavor! Hell, even local restaurants in some of the more well-known cities for this, such as Portland, have developed strong and friendly ties with their wheeled counterparts, working alongside one another to further both businesses’ goals. Many cities have embraced this world, and through much hard work have transformed it to the state and trend it is today, and the reason why so many people have fallen in love with it.
Sadly, despite this, not every notable city (of course there are thousands of smaller, non-central cities that can’t support something like this) has made access to this form of business seemingly possible. Still many places, even with very vocal groups of people for food truck integration, keep tight restrictions, absurd rules for business, sever parking fines, if they even allow the vendors at ALL. Even in New York, easily one of the Food Truck capitals of the country, most business owners end up having to deal with a $100+ parking ticket every time they drive out.
One of the prime examples of this circumstance is Savannah, GA (ironic since food trucks are supposedly booming in Georgia as a whole). Though proponents for the food truck scene have done much to make it POSSIBLE for Food Trucks to operate, insane area laws create difficult practices that make it next to impossible to make any money at all. Still much work is to be done, support is needed, and building a coalition of truck owners to survive the streets together is all but vital in the quest to create a city habitable for this street food culture.
Those wanting to start a food truck in an environment like this find themselves facing a steep challenge that may easily involve waiting out a few years until they’re even able to get to the point of struggling like beginning food trucks in OTHER cities. By this point, we would normally excerpt one of the locally successful truck owners in an interview designed to provide answers on the area based on their experience. However, considering the situation, we ended up finding another, even better source to fully go over the issue. Amy Hughes is a local Public Affairs worker and former lobbyist in Savannah who has been immensely aware of and involved with the food truck’s struggle for better regulations. She very graciously took the time out of her busy schedule to answer a bevy of questions on the situation at hand, and I thank her very much for all her help in the matter.
Question: First off, tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do, and how did you get involved with the complex Savannah street food regulations?
Amy: I run a public affairs firm called Hughes Public Affairs and have worked on public policy issues at the local, state and federal levels for over 20 years. I’m also a foodie at heart. I was asked by one of the Aldermen and a group of local business people to get involved in order to help food trucks grow and thrive in Savannah.
Q: Secondly, just to get it out of the way, are mobile food vendors allowed in Savannah right now?
Amy: Yes, they are allowed, however the existing regulations are so convoluted and complex that there are very few who operate within the City limits and then it is only on a limited scale.
Q: Are there any restrictions on what KIND of vehicle or owner can operate?
Amy: The state of Georgia regulates the actual vehicles and the equipment that must be included. Additionally the City of Savannah zoning dept also has some regulations about vehicle size and where they are allowed to park.
Q: Savannah has been really resistant to allowing trucks on the streets for years now, has there been anything to change this recently? Any particular loosening on regulations?
Amy: The City staff have realized that their existing regulations have put a damper on food trucks being successful in Savannah. There is a new attitude of cooperation among the staff because they now see food trucks from the perspective of small business incubators that can diversify our local food scene while creating jobs and small business ownership opportunities. There has been a “top down” directive for the various departments to come together and develop policies that make sense and work for both food trucks as well as traditional restaurants. Also, Alderwoman Carol Bell has adopted this issue as something that she wants to make happen in our community because she has seen it be successful and create business ownership opportunities elsewhere.
Q: Are there any groups or organizations new owners should be aware of to join and help get on the street successfully and/or work towards improving regulations to let them?
Amy: We are in the process of formalizing the Savannah Mobile Food Coalition and hope to kick it off at the beginning of the year. It will be a coalition focused on revising the existing City policies and advocating with the City Council for passage of an ordinance that makes Savannah more food truck friendly. The Board of the Coalition will be comprised of progressive business people and food truck owners who understand the benefits and opportunities of a good mobile food community.
Q: Are there any websites or other resources you would suggest for interested Truck/Mobile owners to look into before beginning?
Amy: I would encourage them to look at the most successful trucks in other cities like Austin and Portland and figure out what it is that makes them unique and successful. Simplicity seems to be the key to success. Don’t have a complicated menu, just focus on something and do it really well. Also, there is a publication called The Atlanta Street Food Guidebook which is helpful in understanding the Georgia and Atlanta requirements.
Q: What are the main regulations and health codes that we need to be aware of, and that may be/are hindering street food development in the city?
Amy: The two biggest obstacles come through the state of Georgia Department of Public Health. Specifically, trucks are required to return to their commissary kitchen every night and completely unload. This results in so much extra work for the food truck operators. Communities with thriving food truck industries like Portland and Austin have mobility requirements that allow them to essentially be stationary so they don’t have to constantly set up, take down, travel through traffic and have the added expense of lots of gasoline. Additionally, every time a food truck owner wants to move their truck to a different location, they must go into the health department and file paperwork and pay a $35 fee. They have to do it again to move it back to the original location. This is very expensive for the truck owners. It is also time consuming. Route changes should be able to be filed electronically or via fax like in other cities and you shouldn’t have to pay a fee to move your truck to where the business is. Some of this actually may take state legislation to resolve. From the City perspective, the extreme limiting of places where they are allowed to operate currently has limited growth in the industry.
Q: Are there any other challenges to operating in Savannah? What are the reasons that they’ve been so resistant to beginning Food Trucks?
Amy: Savannah is known for our national historic district which serves as a huge tourist draw for our community. There are all sorts of regulations in place designed to protect the historic district as a community asset – noise ordinances, sign ordinances, tree ordinances, parking ordinances, and most of all zoning ordinances. There are some folks who don’t see contemporary food trucks as “consistent” with the image they want to present and protect. They also don’t want to see giant neon chickens or raggedy looking grungy trucks parked or roaming around downtown. The key is to find a balance that works for Savannah.
As you may know, Savannah is home to the world’s large art and design school, known as SCAD, so the juxtaposition of old and new is everywhere. I believe that food trucks can be another interesting facet in what makes Savannah a great place to live, work and play.
Amy: Perhaps the most efficient department in our local government is our Parking Services division. Parking in Savannah is very complicated because you must keep an absurd stack of quarters in your car or you will get a $20 ticket. (True locals hate parking decks and avoid them whenever possible.) There are some folks who feel that food trucks could make the parking situation even worse if they are allowed to park at metered spaces. At this point we are looking to encourage off-street parking for food trucks except in certain pre-approved places and on private property. This will help alleviate potential conflict with bricks and mortar businesses. The south side of the City is certainly an easier area for food trucks to operate, however the tourists and students are primarily in the historic district. Ultimately for our trucks to be successful, they need to be able to go where the business is.
Q: All the struggles and tight regulations aside, can you think of any unique opportunities Savannah would bring for Food Trucks, either in successful niches or ease of access to events, parks, etc? What’s the populace like (if applicable)?
Amy: One of the cool things Savannah offers is the Savannah Stopover Festival as well as other music events. The folks who operate these concerts would love to have a successful mobile food community. We also offer tons of festivals and events. We have gorgeous parks and squares and fabulous weather. Almost every weekend there is something unique to do and there are some things that are weekly like our Forsyth Park Food Market. The tourists, the students and the locals create a great opportunity for food truck owners. There are also a number of large businesses that trucks could service as well.
Q: What does Savannah still have to do to get a street food culture fully rolling? What does the future look like right now?
Amy: I think the future looks brighter than ever for food trucks in Savannah. I fully anticipate new food truck regulations that will make Savannah a more attractive food truck city by the spring. Then we will need existing restaurants and small business entrepreneurs to make the leap and buy/operate trucks to get things really rolling. Another option would be for trucks from other cities to start operations in Savannah as well.
Years past there used to be a coalition that tried reforming and getting good regulations for Food Trucks, but they seemed to have died out a year ago. I hear a new one is starting soon though.
I am not totally sure why the previous movement fizzled. They spent a lot of effort working on the concept of a central commissary kitchen which was a whole lot of work without a funding source to make it happen. The current coalition is broad-based and is composed of some big thinkers who can make things happen. Plus the City has expressed a very strong willingness to make this work.
Amy: Two weeks ago, we attempted a low-key food truck rodeo of local trucks at the closing party for the Creative Coast “Geekend” weekend. The weather was absurdly cold so the turnout was not what they had hoped. However it gave us a chance to push the envelope a bit with the folks in charge of the regulations and permitting and to put things on the fast track. We hope to do several similar gatherings to build momentum for the movement.
Q: On the lighter side, is there any sort of Truck that you’d love to have join the business?
Amy: I love trucks with clever, punny names like Along Came a Slider, Man Bites Dog, Coat and Thai, Out of My Huevos, Auto Bahn, Viking Soul Food, etc.
Secretly, I would love to quit my day job and open a vintage camper-looking truck called Miss American Pie featuring slices of my awesome homemade pies!
Q: What’s your favorite and least favorite aspects to people owning a Truck, either in Savannah or as-is?
Amy: To me, the state regulation requiring a truck to go back and fully unload at their commissary kitchen every night creates an absurd burden on the food truck operators.
I love the fact that you can have a niche idea or a favorite family recipe which can sustain a truck whereas it might not be enough to justify a traditional restaurant. Owning a food truck is the essence of the American dream of being a small business owner. You are your own boss and your success is up to you.
Q: Finally, is there any last thing you’d like to say about Savannah, or a piece of advice or two you’d like to give to upcoming interested Food Truck owners in the area?
Amy: Food trucks are a natural fit for Savannah. They will help diversify our food scene, provide small business ownership opportunities and jobs, and contribute to making Savannah a cool place to live, work and play. The Savannah Mobile Food Coalition is committed to working with the City of Savannah and the Coastal Health District to help our community become a place where food trucks can thrive. Stay tuned! Hopefully we’ll get the details worked out over the next few months.
Truly, the worst part of this entire deal, as one can easily see after reading through Miss Hughes’ comments on the matter, is that a lot of people WANT this to happen, and it CAN be made possible to do it without hurting other businesses, in fact HELPING them. That’s the most amazing thing about food trucks, I’ve always felt, their connection to the people and community around them; using the term ‘culture’ to describe them is more than just saying one has to have a certain attitude/lifestyle to enjoy them, like how we view ‘foodies’ and ‘hipsters.’ Street Food has always been tied to the soul and heart of a culture as a whole, and the new age of cuisine in the US has transformed this from the stalls and bazaars of the past to the mobile kitchens of today.
I sincerely wish the Savannah pursuers all the luck in this intense endeavor, and truly hope that they can get to that point they seek, with their name mentioned alongside those like Portland and Miami. In five years time, it would delight me to no end to return here and write a proper, generic “How To Start a Food Truck” as I have and will do with other cities. Until then, we can only push as much of our support on them and raise awareness to this circumstance. If possible, I ask any readers of this who can to spread this article to anyone who can assist; and anyone considering starting their Truck in Savannah, really contact Amy and these other supporters to best improve all your odds. Once more I thank Amy Hughes for her amazing help in putting this article together, and wish every food truck owner, current and starting, the best of luck.