VIRGINIA BEACH — George Stepanovich owns the Bagel Baker restaurant in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach. Along with his restaurant, Stepanovich also serves up bagels and sandwiches on the road — from a food truck. But a law on the books is prohibiting some of his employees from working on that truck.
That is because there is a Virginia Beach law that requires background checks for all food truck employees. Those with criminal backgrounds may not be allowed to work on the trucks, according to Sec. 26-34 of the city’s code of ordinances.
Frustrated, Stepanovich decided to stop from hiring new employees for his food truck until Virginia Beach leaders clarify or change laws governing the mobile businesses.
“I want to know what I’m allowed to do moving forward,” he added.
Now, a Virginia Beach councilmember is working with Stepanovich and other food truck owners to clarify food truck regulations by rewriting the ordinance.
Why does the city run background checks on food truck workers?
When Virginia Beach City Council first had to classify food trucks, they placed the businesses into the “peddler’s classification … because there was no other classification for them,” according to Virginia Beach City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, the city official leading the effort to rewrite the food truck ordinance.
The peddler’s classification that governs food trucks is the same law that governs ice cream trucks; because of that, food truck workers are required to have background checks.
Abbott said she understands why background checks are required for ice cream truck drivers because “their business models are designed to drive them into neighborhoods and target families.” It makes sense to Abbott why residents would want to keep people “with potentially violent pasts out of their neighborhoods.”
But food trucks are barred by law from entering neighborhoods anyways. Again, Abbott points to the current law requiring background checks as inappropriate for the food truck model.
“We don’t require other food service industries to complete background checks on their employees. I don’t believe it is right to prevent someone from working, particularly if they committed a nonviolent crime,” said Abbott.
Food truck owners organize to change area laws
MJ Medlar, who owns and operates a food truck called “Capt’n Crabby” with her husband, Steve Jones, started the business in Denver in 2011, but moved to Virginia Beach in 2014.
She has emerged as a leader in the Hampton Roads food truck community, lobbying for changes to city ordinances in James City County, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, and Norfolk. Medlar also acts as the current executive director of Street Food Revolutionaries, a non-profit “food truck collective” comprised of street food chefs trying to raise standards and change the laws.
The city’s ordinance requires that food truck business owners must also pass a background check — not just employees who may work on the food truck — before they are issued a peddlers permit. This applies even if the owner does not intend to work on the trucks themselves.
As the owner of Capt’n Crabby, would have been prohibited from owning a food truck business if she could not successfully pass a background check.
She recently renewed her peddlers permit and described paying to have the police run a background check on her.
“I am the owner of the business,” she said. “Why would I need a background check?”
Food trucks find an ally in Abbott
After reading on Facebook in January that Medlar was organizing food truck vendors to speak at an upcoming city council meeting, Abbott reached out to Medlar to offer her support.
Abbott’s support for this issue came out of “a love for small businesses”, she said, adding that she believes that “the city’s policies and ordinances should reflect a community wanting to foster entrepreneurial growth.”
After that January city council meeting, Abbott created a subcommittee to improve the ordinance that governs food trucks with the aim of creating a new classification for the businesses.
The subcommittee includes food truck and restaurant owners, Councilmember Bobby Dyer and Abbott, two members from the process improvement committee, as well as city staff from the zoning and city attorney’s offices.
“So we have stakeholders that are exclusively restaurant owner, exclusively food truck owners, and some that are both,” Abbott said.
That is a key part of the reform process, Abbott said, because “making sure brick-and-mortar restaurants feel like partners in this process is vital. The last thing this subcommittee wants to do is give one party an advantage over the other.”
What’s next for food truck regulation?
According to Abbott, reclassifying food trucks into their own category would eliminate the background check requirement. Abbott would also like to see the business license registration cost for food trucks reduced.
“I want the license fees to be more consistent with the fees restaurant owners face,” Abbott said.
“Currently food truck owners have to register each truck at $300 apiece,” while brick-and-mortar restaurant owners pay only a $50 license fee, she added.
Abbott would also like to reform another part of the law that restricts food trucks on private property — like shopping centers, for example. That law would need to include language that allows for a process that is fair for food trucks and the established businesses on the property.
“I think the main concern will be establishing fair setbacks so that food trucks aren’t parking in front of restaurants.”
A public hearing will be held after the subcommittee approves a draft of the new ordinance. Abbott said the goal is to have a vote before Memorial Day.
Stepanovich said that he is willing to be patient during the reform process, but is also adamant that the food truck regulations need to change.
“We were an emerging market and the city didn’t know where to put us at the time, I totally understand that,” Stepanovich said. “I really feel like the city wants to fix the problem and figure this out.”
“All we want are the fair and equal economic conditions that will allow us to prosper, just like any other business,” he added.