Background checks at the center of changes to food truck ordinance

MJ Medlar and her husband Steve Jones own and operate a food truck called "Capt'n Crabby," based in Virginia Beach. Medlar has emerged as a local leader in lobbying local city governments to reform regulations on food trucks (Courtesy of MJ Medlar)
MJ Medlar and her husband Steve Jones own and operate a food truck called “Capt’n Crabby,” based in Virginia Beach. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of MJ Medlar)

VIRGINIA BEACH — City Council voted 7 to 4 Tuesday to take the first step toward rewriting the ordinance that governs food trucks in the city.

However, the ordinance did not remove a major complaint from food truck operators — that their employees be required to pass criminal background checks.

The original ordinance up for debate would have removed the background check requirement and created a new license classification with the Commissioner of Revenue that is just for food trucks; but amid contentious debate among council members, a substitute motion to keep the background check on food truck employees while moving forward with the license component was adopted and passed by council.

The part of the ordinance dictating the regulations and permitted parking locations of food trucks in the city was not voted on Tuesday.

“Food trucks will still have to continue to operate under the existing restrictions currently in place” with the passage of Tuesday’s ordinance, said Councilwoman Jessica Abbott.

Abbott argued for the removal of background checks from the food truck license process, saying those background checks were an “immoral” obstacle to employment.

Through council’s process improvement committee, Abbott and Mayor Bobby Dyer have been working on new food truck regulations for the past year.

Currently, food truck owners are classified as “peddlers” and are subject to regulations originally intended for ice cream trucks, such as criminal background checks on drivers.

According to a news release from Abbott, council’s vote on Tuesday changes three things:

  • It establishes the Mobile Food Vending license and remove food trucks from the Peddler Permit license. This also removes the $300 license tax per food truck.
  • It establishes a license tax rate of .20 percent, which matches the license tax rate of restaurants in Virginia Beach.
  • Allows restaurants with food trucks to include the gross revenue of their truck into their total and pay one license tax instead of the flat $300 tax per truck that was charged via the Peddler Permit classification. Trucks without a restaurant only pay the rate of .20 percent base on revenue from sales in Virginia Beach.

MJ Medlar, leader of Eat the Streets 757, a Hampton Roads food truck association, said starting a food truck business and operating in the city is very difficult, and a lot of that has to do with the ordinances that currently govern food trucks.

“We’re treated very differently than restaurants,” said Medlar, who owns “Capt’n Crabby” food truck and the restaurant “The Boardroom.”

Not everyone is happy with some of the changes. During a public hearing prior to Tuesday’s vote, leaders of several restaurant groups approached council and asked them to slow down.

“We’re not saying ‘no,’ we’re just saying not now,” said George Kotarides, president of the Atlantic Avenue Association. “And we believe a comprehensive approach, rather than a piecemeal approach, is the best way forward,” referring to the licensing and planning components of the ordinance being passed separately.

Kotarides’s colleague at the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association, Phill Boyer, offered a mix of support and opposition.

“We want to dispel any myths that we are obstructionists, that we are anti-food trucks or anti business,” said Boyer, who is president of the restaurant association. Boyer added although his organization supports the lower fees afforded to food trucks under the new ordinance, they “draw the line” at allowing food trucks to operate on public property or public roads.

“What we really care about are the unintended consequences,” Boyer said. “We don’t really care about the cost of the licensing fees.”

But Boyer said he personally was concerned about removing the background check requirement.

Vice Mayor Jim Wood suggested during council’s workshop Tuesday that they hold off and do the planning and tax pieces of the food truck ordinance all at once.

Not everyone agreed.

“This ordinance is a great start, and we can always come back and tweak it later on,” said Councilman Aaron Rouse. “We have to show everyone that Virginia Beach is open for business, that we want small businesses here.”

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