By JULIE B. MAGLIO, LISA MACNEIL & SUMMER HAMPTON
Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed House Bill (HB) 1193 into law. It is a wide sweeping piece of legislation that aims to reduce regulation on occupational licenses. Among the licensing requirements deregulated are those required for mobile food vendors. The new law prohibits local government entities from requiring a registration or permit and associated fees for food trucks and similar mobile establishments. It is important to note that Florida counties and municipalities may regulate these businesses through zoning laws, but the law states that they may not ban mobile food vendors in entirety from the municipality or county.
With the local governments now stripping licensing requirements for mobile food vendors from their ordinances, we set out to understand how it may affect local businesses.
Brick & Mortar vs Food Truck?
The Brooksville Main Street program aims to improve business for the shops located downtown so naturally, Brooksville Main Street Executive Director, Natalie Kahler is reticent about the prospect of food trucks luring customers away from the brick and mortar establishments.
“We are also concerned for our brick and mortar restaurants since their overhead is much higher than a food truck. We have already seen trucks setting up in downtown and taking business away from the restaurants. We love food trucks but we are concerned the new regulations will hurt our brick and mortars. It can also impact local government taxes since food trucks pay tax to the county they are based in, not the county they are selling food in on any given day.”
Anthony Tomassi is the owner of Nina’s Cucina. He operates a food truck under that name which now can be found at Marker 48. He operated Nina’s Cucina, the popular eatery in Spring Hill as well as the food truck until May of 2018, when they decided to close the restaurant, but continue operating the food truck. Tomassi agrees that the overhead on the food truck is a lot less since there isn’t as much staff, everything is self contained so there are no utilities payments and they own all the equipment.
Tomassi said that cities tend to be protective of their brick and mortar restaurants in downtown areas, also remarking that it’s understandable since a food truck could potentially take business from the brick and mortar restaurant if it’s parked nearby. On the flip side, he did mention that the city of New Port Richey has recently embraced food trucks as a way to entice visitors to their downtown area. This could spark interest in the area’s retail stores and eateries and perhaps spur a return visit.
He also mentioned Rory Killingsworth, owner of the Little Lady Cafe in downtown Brooksville who has a similar outlook. She allows food trucks to park at her restaurant during off hours and is generally very supportive of the food and beverage industry in the area. So it’s not always an “us versus them” struggle between food trucks and brick and mortar restaurants.
While there may be less overhead, Laurie-Ann Wilkens, owner of Laurieque, a BBQ food truck stationed on Cortez Blvd, just east of Highpoint, notes that there are many challenges that come with operating a food truck.
“There are a number of challenges of running any business, but a food truck in particular has its own set of struggles on top of the business part. All food must be stored and prepared in the commissary or self sustaining kitchen. Space is always an issue. That means I go grocery shopping every single day. What I can hold in my fridge at the truck is the amount I can buy. So if there is a really great deal on meats, I can’t buy a whole bunch because I don’t have anywhere to put it. Once you cook food you can only cook so much because again, nowhere to put it. With bbq it’s especially challenging.. I have to guess how much I think I’m going to sell for the day because I have to start making it hours before it’s going to be served, with say a taco truck, if it rains and you aren’t busy you just don’t assemble the tacos and the veggies, toppings, sour cream etc will keep for a couple of days… so being mindful of the weather is also super important.”
Wilkens cited some examples of how regulations can be different between three counties in the Tampa Bay area.
“In order to operate a food truck in Hernando County, you must operate out of a primary location, you are not allowed to drive around during the day, find a corner and set up shop,” she explained. She said that along with the former permit requirement, they need a notarized letter from the landowner granting them permission to park on their property.
“In Pasco County the rules are completely different. No food truck can be at any location longer than a total of 6 months combined. So you can serve from a corner for 3 weeks, leave for a week, come back and serve for a week, etc… As long as you don’t go over the 6 months at that one location. If you are in Hillsborough, they just basically make you go and pay a permit fee and if the landowner allows you to park there, you can park there, no questions asked. Those are just a few examples of how different it can be between 3 counties that are all considered a part of Tampa Bay.”
(In consulting the Hillsborough Code of Ordinances, the code states that a vendor shall possess a valid lease from the property owner. The Hernando County Code of Ordinances states that the vendor shall provide the written permission of the property owner in a format prescribed by the County.)
Anthony Tomassi explained his business model is to develop his food truck as a reputable and reliable eatery. Keeping his food truck stationary is beneficial because his customers will always know where to go to get his offerings. This isn’t the case for all food trucks. Many are highly mobile, moving from place to place frequently. As we see In Pasco, where the rules are set up to encourage more mobility in food trucks.
Benefits of a statewide permit
While the new statewide permit is a benefit for Nina’s Cucina, it is most beneficial for the trucks that are constantly operating in different counties and cities.
Ben Rampt, owner of Mr. C’s Grilled Cheese food truck spoke with us as well. He also happens to be a board member of the Florida Food Truck Association (FFTA). Rampt explained, “FFTA spearheaded the movement towards having a state license that would eliminate the need for all of the various local requirements that have come about over the last few years. This new legislation allows our business to operate more freely geographically.” He also noted, “‘Deregulation’ does not pertain to health and public safety. The health and fire codes for food trucks are just as strict as they always have been and should be. What has been eliminated is the unnecessary drudgery of obtaining each and every local license or permit. Some permits could not be obtained online. You had to go down to the courthouse in that city and spend at least half a day getting that permit. And if you didn’t have all of your ducks in a row, then you wasted your afternoon. Better luck next time.”
He continued, “It’s not that we don’t want to respect the rules, we just would like a more streamlined way to gain permission to operate in a given area. The new single state license gives us that. We’re based in North Tampa so we will travel anywhere from Pinellas County up to Hernando, out to Lakeland, down to Ruskin, and anywhere in between. The Bay Area is a dense cluster of towns and cities so we really didn’t have to travel far before needing another new permit. Making a living and supporting a family with a food truck business is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We love the area we live in and the customers we meet each day. These new laws allow these small business owners to more easily expand their reach without unnecessary red tape.”
Michael and Cherise Romeo, the owners of 808 Island Treats are now operating both a food truck and a brick and mortar restaurant. Their food truck stays within the tri-county area of Hernando, Pasco and Citrus. They agree that a major challenge of operating the food truck has been “having a location that doesn’t require an expensive permit that requires more time to submit and get approval for.”
808 Island Treats is carded and vetted for the Florida State School system as an approved vendor. “However each county requires an additional card and can only be valid for that county, so each county we conduct business in as a vendor requires its own card,” the Romeos explain.
Starting Brick & Mortars
Prior to starting their brick and mortar establishment, the Romeos operated the food truck which helped them in developing their business. “It let us know we were in a good market for our product. We created a following and the knowledge of what the public wanted,” stated the Romeos.
They further explained, “We only added the brick and mortar to our business, we now have both and are very successful.”
COVID-19 has hit the food truck industry pretty hard, so the streamlining of the licensures comes at a welcome time. Prior to the pandemic Tomassi explained, “Our major venues were wineries and breweries and suddenly we had no place to go.” They fortunately were able to work out a partnership with Marker 48 when they were able to get back up and running.
Many haven’t been so lucky he said. Of course there have been no festivals and events since early March. Additionally, the big retail stores normally have mobile food vendors. These vendors can no longer operate on their premises due to COVID-19 restrictions. Tomassi had first hand experience of this in March.
The pandemic has pushed Tomassi to start up another brick and mortar restaurant. The restaurant will be located in New Port Richey and expects to open in September. He says that he will keep the food truck operating at Marker 48.
What Local Officials Say About State Pre-emption
At the regular meeting of the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners on August 11, 2020, the board held the first of two public hearings to amend the current ordinance to reflect the new legislation.
Until now, food trucks and similar mobile restaurants obtained permits by paying $100 per year. According to Planning Director Ron Pianta, the county has only collected revenues of this type by approximately 7 businesses.
Though the ordinance unanimously passed, commissioners voiced their concerns about what this means for county revenues, as well as enforcement and visual effects on the local landscape.
Commissioners Steve Champion and John Allocco expressed concern about parking spaces for businesses being reduced by food truck usage, and the prudence of operating these businesses close to their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
Pianta explained that there is nothing in the House Bill that prevents a food truck from operating close to a restaurant of a similar type. In the business sense, Pianta said the practice “is not a sound business model long-term. (The food truck) won’t be there very long.”
Pianta went on to say that local enforcement and verification of state permits for all operators would not be a good use of the county’s time. “If they’re creating a problem in the right of way, or they’re creating a problem in the parking lot, we can certainly talk to them, but if they have the permission of the property owner to be there, and they’re licensed by the state, we can’t require any type of license or permit for them to be at that location.”
Allocco stated that non-mobile businesses are required to provide a certain amount of parking spaces, depending on the type of business, and that if spaces are occupied by food trucks, the business is no longer in compliance with those requirements.
Pianta said, “Typically, you’re going to find these vendors in large parking lots and shopping centers where there’s a lot of traffic and it’s not going to make much of a difference in terms of somebody’s ability to park on that property or use that particular property.”
County Attorney Garth Coller disagreed with Pianta, and added legal context by saying, “If I get photographs, videos, etc. of numerous days that the same vending trucks are in parking spots on a routine basis. I will take that before the Code Enforcement Special Master, and I predict I will win that case.”
Pianta did say however, that if his office received complaints, that they would follow up.
The proposed ordinance was submitted by the Planning and Zoning Commission, and was approved by that board on July 13, 2020. The final hearing will take place on or after August 25, 2020.
We contacted the City of Brooksville to provide commentary, but did not receive a response.
HB 1193 was sponsored by Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, Spring Hill. He made the following statement when it was headed to the house floor for a full vote in February 2020, “Florida has the fourth-highest rate of occupational licensing, with 30% of the workforce subject to excessive and duplicate licensing requirements. The regulation across several professions is so unreasonable that if one counts education and experience hours, it takes less time to get a license in regulation-rich California, than it does in our state.
“The reality is burdensome licensing laws hit many lower-income workers two-fold— once in the form of hindering job opportunities and then again in the form of higher prices. The Occupational Freedom and Opportunity Act (HB 1193) is vital to removing barriers of entry, creating jobs and restoring the bottom rung on the ladder of opportunity.”
Since taking office, Gov. DeSantis has placed an emphasis on deregulation. He remarked after signing HB1193, “For two years, we’ve pushed for regulatory reforms in Florida’s occupational licensing system to remove unnecessary barriers for individuals pursuing their professional aspirations. Today, with legislative and public support, we’re delivering on those reforms with a comprehensive and meaningful bill that will save thousands of Floridians both time and money for years to come.”
The food truck operators are just one subset of workers who will reap the benefits of HB 1193. A wide range of professions which include barbers and cosmetologists, building administrators, inspectors, and plans examiners, landscape architects as well as Florida State Boxing Commission timekeepers and announcers are set to see some deregulation or streamlining in their occupational licensing requirements.