LINCOLN, NEBRASKA – With more than 620 versions of regulations governing their industry, Nebraska food truck owners say this regulatory free-for-all is forcing them to turn down opportunities to work in multiple locations.
On Tuesday, the Nebraska Legislature’s Agriculture Committee heard testimony from food truck operators and other supporters of legislation that could ease the burden.
Legislative Bill (LB) 740, introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas, encourages the use of reciprocity agreements between agencies issuing health inspection permits and the creation of a one-stop shop for operators to more easily find out which rules apply where.
Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, said it’s time to modernize the rules and regulations for food trucks. The state statute, he said, was created for brick-and-mortar restaurants and has not been updated since 1997.
“After years of working with food truck clients, we saw the same issues pop up—mixed messages from regulators, unexpected costs for specialty equipment, and surprise ordinances—which all lead back to the same root cause: regulatory overlap,” Hladik said.
Vargas said the “patchwork of regulations” makes it difficult for food truck owners to navigate, comply, and become profitable.
“The cost to operate, coupled with having to chase down the different permitting rules and costs easily can become a hurdle for these small business owners,” Vargas said.
In working with Vargas and Sen. Ray Aguilar during the drafting process, Hladik said the challenge was to find a solution that maintains health and safety, respects local control, and recognizes the hard work and investment of others in the food industry.
“We think this bill is a significant step that we can all feel good about taking,” he said.
Food truck operators testifying Tuesday agreed.
Seth Coates, owner of Scouty’s Shaved Ice, encouraged committee members to move LB 740 onto the floor of the Legislature as a show of support to a growing industry of current business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs.
While he mainly does business in Dodge, Saunders, Washington, and Douglas counties, Coates said he was invited to an event in McCook last summer but had to turn down the offer.
“We made every effort to contact the city clerk in McCook to discuss specifics regarding their classification of mobile vending units and operation requirements, however we were unable to get answers and ultimately were forced to turn away participation in their event,” he said. “Had the mobile food unit ordinance registry been in place, it would have, in theory, assisted us in rapidly making a conclusive decision regarding our attendance and participation in their event.”
Eight other food truck owners shared similar stories in support of LB 740 during the hearing.
Craig Ryon, owner of the Sauce Bosses food truck, said he has been hesitant to go to Lancaster County because of the time it would take to schedule an inspection, file paperwork, and pay fees, even though he’s done all of that in Douglas and Sarpy counties.
“If this bill was passed, I would be able to travel to other areas and widen my customer base,” he said. “I encourage you all to support the changes proposed in this bill to make Nebraska a place that is friendlier for food truck businesses.”
As an attorney, Bill Lamson said he was accustomed to reading all types of rules and regulations. But now, as owner of Hudson’s Mini Donut food truck, he found it challenging when he considered taking his food truck to multiple locations.
“I spent hours and days on the phone, on websites researching what I needed to do to get a permit,” he said. “I talked to municipalities over and over again to make sure I was going through the process correctly.”
In addition to encouraging reciprocity agreements and creating the online registry, LB 740 also asks the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to establish a pre-inspection checklist for food truck operators.
The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, the Nebraska Hospitality Association, the Platte Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Nebraska Farmers Union, and the Public Health Association of Nebraska also testified in support.
No one spoke in opposition of the bill during the hearing.
Top photo: Center Policy Director Johnathan Hladik testifies in support of LB 740; middle photo: Seth Coates offers testimony; bottom photo: Sen. Tony Vargas provides an opening statement on the bill. | Photos by Teresa Hoffman