By Christopher Allen
Newport is not a complete stranger to food trucks, those mobile versions of local, brick and mortar restaurants. Indeed, special event permits are granted to allow certain vendors to operate on state, public or private property on a case-by-case basis. But grabbing a lunchtime taco from a refurbished school bus in Washington Square, or any public area, will not be in the offing for Newport unless local ordinances are amended.
“We get a lot of phone calls about mobile food trucks. And we have for years,” Newport City Clerk Laura Swistak said. “We don’t allow them [on public property]. That would be something that the city administration would have to determine.”
In a spate of late June bill signings, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed legislation to help food trucks get off the ground. And on June 23, the Rhode Island General Assembly unanimously approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Dawn Euer, who represents Newport and Jamestown, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Brian Patrick Kennedy, that will streamline statewide the registration process for aspiring small-scale food vendors, commonly referred to as purveyors of “food trucks.” A version of the bill was first introduced by Euer and passed by the state Senate on June 12.
The bill will go into effect Jan. 1, 2019, but language in the legislation makes clear that cities and towns can determine how many and if any mobile eateries are allowed within their jurisdiction.
Euer said the impetus for the legislation came after hearing from constituents that their experience securing the right to operate a food truck in other states had been much smoother than in Rhode Island.
“When I talked to business owners about their experience, I heard horror stories about the amount of money that people have to pay in annual compliance [in Rhode Island],” she said.
“The state process was so convoluted and confusing that they felt it really needed to be fixed and streamlined. When I got elected, I talked to the Department of Business Regulation, and the director said, ‘Oh my goodness we have been working on this.’”
According to the bill, the DBR will set the maximum allowable municipal fee at $75. Local municipal permits currently vary from town to town, with some charging up to $300 annually. In Providence, the annual fee is $110. In Middletown, food vendor permits are issued by the council for a $50 annual fee. According to the Middletown clerk’s office, permits there are not issued to any applicant who is not up to date on their taxes to the town. On record to date, Middletown has a total of eight permits on the books, ranging from ice cream or lemonade peddlers to the classic mobile lunch counter.
Before the new law, food truck vendors in Rhode Island also had to secure a license from the Department of Health on a three-part licensing cycle, which runs from March 1 to July 31 for $100, Aug. 1 to Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 to Feb. 28 for $75. These fees are in addition to state sales tax permits, vehicle registration and criminal background checks.
The State Mobile Food Establishment Registration Act will create a one-stop shop so that, according to Euer, what some experience as a complicated maze of regulatory hurdles can be simplified on the state level.
“People would have to get numerous copies of documents [from the] Department of Health or the Department of Business Regulation. Then they might have to check in with city hall. Then they might have to go back to a state agency,” Euer said, referring to the multi-layered process.
Swistak said that although the city is aware of the recent legislation assisting in the state permit process, any finalized state legislation that required the city to issue food truck permits could mean major changes for the city, although the bill stops short of that. For now, the power to implement food trucks into Newport’s foodie culture lies with the City Council, who may choose to continue to restrict them beyond the special permitting code.
Without the uncertainty and high cost of traditional brick-and-mortar establishments, food trucks are popping up in cities and towns across the country and have garnered a place on equal footing with other categories of eateries, from diners to fine dining.
A 2017 analysis by market-research firm IBISWorld found that while the restaurant industry grew nationally at a clip of 2.9 percent between 2011 and 2016, the food truck industry outpaced their counterparts with an annual growth rate of 7.9 percent. Currently it is a billion-dollar industry. But with Newport’s dining economy well established, and dozens of restaurants competing for the millions in revenue these businesses produce, Newport has been relatively late to the food truck game.
Euer said that local officials, as in every other Rhode Island municipality, will still be final arbiter on whether or not there is any expansion of mobile food establishments within the city limits. And this bill will still help current mobile business on the state level.
“There is nothing in here that is going to tell the [Newport] municipality that you have to let somebody park a food truck on America’s Cup Avenue. It’s still giving the city the ability to control that,” she said.
“[For] the people who [own] Del’s Lemonade, for example, this bill is going to help them make their annual registration process a lot smoother. I’m hoping to be able to correlate between the state level process and the city level process,” said Euer, referring to her hope for more uniformity between local ordinances and the state.