In the month since Taco Amigo opened in Columbus, it has been bouncing from parking lot to parking lot and business to business serving tacos, enchiladas, tamales and other Mexican cuisine out of a truck.
The first, and as yet only, food truck to receive a privilege license in Columbus has been doing steady business, said owner and Hamilton native Randy Vanegas, who runs the truck with his wife Isabel. He said property owners or business owners — usually along the restaurant strip on Highway 45 North — have invited them to set up shop nearby.
“We want to try and feel out different areas,” he said Thursday, where his truck was parked in the parking lot of Tractor Supply. “We do want to go a little bit further into downtown. We’ve had invitations to go to downtown by businesses, but it just stays so busy with us in this area.”
But they haven’t been invited everywhere. In a Facebook post Wednesday, CJ’s Pizza owner Brent Teague said he’d called the owners of Towne Square, the shopping center where his restaurant is located, and had Taco Amigo removed from the parking lot after he felt the truck set up too close to his establishment.
“If you think you’re gonna park a food truck right next to my restaurant in the same parking lot and poach my customers then think again,” the post read.
Vanegas said the incident was a misunderstanding. The owner of another Towne Square business invited Vanegas, apparently without telling the property owner. When the property owner told the Vanegases to leave, they complied.
Teague and his wife and CJ’s Pizza co-owner Courtney Teague declined to comment when reached by The Dispatch, but in the Facebook post Teague shared concerns about whether a food truck is subject to the same type of regulations as a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“I’m not sure about taxes but I sure am interested in knowing if they’re required to complete the same serve safe certification and I’m pretty sure they need permits to operate a food truck in the city and on certain properties,” he said in a comment on the post.
Vanegas said it’s a concern he’s heard before.
“People say, ‘Oh, food trucks, they don’t pay no rent,’ but we have a prep kitchen,” he said. “We pay rent on our prep kitchen. We pay for a city privilege license.”
Rules and regulations
While legally food trucks are required to adhere to the same fees and regulations as brick-and-mortar establishments — including a privilege license to operate within city limits and a health certificate from the state — there are not special regulations or ordinances specifically for food trucks in Columbus, city officials said.
Columbus does have a transient vendor ordinance on the books, but that applies to more to door-to-door salespeople and similar businesses. Instead, food trucks are required to pay the same fee for privilege licenses that brick-and-mortar businesses do, said Lowndes County Tax Assessor Greg Andrews. Those fees start at $20 for a business of 1-3 employees, rises to $30 for a business of 3-10 employees and increases from there depending on the actual number of employees. Food trucks are also required to obtain the same food permit from the state as other restaurants.
As to where the food trucks can locate inside the city, Vanegas would have to have permission from the property owner before setting up shop, said city building official Kenny Wiegel. The idea behind that is that property owners or restaurant owners wouldn’t want a food truck that could compete with a brick and mortar establishment already located on the property.
“You have to be on commercially zoned private property with property owner permission and naturally out of any right-of-way,” he said.
If Vanegas or any other food truck owner wanted to sell food on public property, he would have to receive special permission from the planning and zoning commission and the mayor and city council, Wiegel said.
Food truck boom in Starkville
The case is different in Starkville, where city officials actively encourage food trucks. Last month, the city held its first Food Truck Friday, during which food trucks from Eupora, Kosciusko, Winona and Jackson all sold food at Cadence Plaza.
“I want them … to feel comfortable coming whenever they want to,” Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill said.
Food trucks in Starkville are subject to the same state regulations and fees as food trucks anywhere else in Mississippi, but instead of paying privilege license fees, food truck owners must pay a transient license fee — $100 for the first three months and $25 to renew for another three months.
However, the city ordinances are set up so that food trucks can pretty much park in any public parking space for up to 24 hours, Spruill said.
She added those requirements are obviously different for brick-and-mortar establishments — those business owners pay privilege license fees that begin at $20 and increase depending on the number of employees, but also adhere to building regulations not applicable to food trucks.
“They’ve also got to have evacuation, escape, all the things that go with having a brick and mortar presence somewhere which is entirely different than having a food truck which has to meet a fire code,” she said. ” … There are certainly different requirements that come with each type of service.”
In Columbus, both Wiegel and planning and zoning chair Kevin Stafford told The Dispatch there are no special ordinances dictating where food trucks can be in relation to other buildings, though Wiegel said city officials would use National Fire Protection Association recommendations for food trucks if they needed to determine whether the food truck was parked in a dangerous spot right now.
However, there’s a chance the city will address food trucks in the ordinances within the coming months. The commission is currently looking at addressing businesses being run out of modular vehicles, Stafford said — it’s only logical that they tackle food trucks at the same time.
“I suspect in the coming months … we’ll have some discussion on it,” he said.
Vanegas said he is fine with the city zoning an area for food trucks or forming a food truck park. He added he doesn’t think his business existing is a threat to brick-and-mortar restaurants in the city, pointing out there are already permanent restaurants side by side.
“Obviously people are enjoying it,” he added. “They’re coming here. … Everybody that has come has said, ‘This is what Columbus needed.'”
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