Update: At the time this article was originally published, food trucks in Omaha were not required to collect city restaurant tax. Since then, the city ordinance has been updated to include food trucks as well.
The City of Lincoln may be facing a $3.3 million revenue shortfall, and officials are seeking input from residents about the priorities they would like to see in the next budget. Rather than raising taxes as some will undoubtedly propose, one long-term solution to help meet local funding needs should be changing local ordinances that impose barriers to creating more taxpaying businesses in the city.
Luke French, a banquet hall owner from Malcolm, is one entrepreneur who wanted to contribute more to the city, but couldn’t. His dream of running a food truck in Lincoln was ended by outdated and unfair city parking regulations. Since the beginning of June, nearly 40,000 people have seen Luke’s story in a new video at PlatteInstitute.org.
Despite the rapid growth of the food truck industry nationally, Lincoln’s current ordinances prohibit these vendors from setting up shop in public parking spaces, and that has left the food truck scene in Lincoln in bad shape.
Because of Lincoln’s burdensome regulations, there are few examples of successful traditional food trucks in the city. Nitro Burger provides indoor seating in a way most food trucks do not, since its vehicle of choice is an old school bus; Heoya eventually opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant to make their cuisine more accessible to customers, and Luke French’s Curbside Catering, sadly, closed altogether.
The Lincoln Journal Star Editorial Board called for the city council to “let food trucks roll” nearly five years ago, but the city hasn’t taken the issue seriously by providing rules that allow food trucks to do business in public city parking. Their inaction has created a striking difference with Omaha, where a vibrant food truck scene has formed, in no small part because parking policies are more welcoming.
While Omaha’s food trucks do not currently collect restaurant tax due to the wording of city ordinances, (though Omaha’s operators say they are willing to collect the tax) these businesses do collect the 1.5 percent city sales tax. In June, Omaha ended its fiscal year with sales tax revenue at a $4.2 million surplus.
Luke French says he doesn’t understand why Lincoln can’t get with the times. Though he’s been out of the food truck business for a while, Nitro Burger co-owner Cherry Kress expressed a similar view in a March interview with FoodTruckEmpire.com, in which she said it “seems like rallying for food truck fairness with the local city administrations has been an unfortunate and never ending battle so I would say adequate parking situations are a constant problem across the board…it’s a shame too, Lincoln is a pretty big city and could offer so much more.”
It’s simple why the regulations haven’t changed: existing businesses don’t want the competition.
At times, the potential solutions offered have given little indication their position is softening. Ordinances proposed in 2013 would have attempted to limit how far food trucks could park from existing restaurants. While that appears to be an improvement at first glance, in practice, these rules can also be used to effectively ban food trucks from areas where customers are likely to go.
Most people would agree that a city ordinance prohibiting restaurants from opening near each other would be completely against competition and entrepreneurship. It’s the same for mobile food businesses. Regulations should be uniform, and only used to serve public interests of health and safety, not the private interests of business competitors.
Ironically, existing business owners and policymakers are harming their own bottom line by keeping food trucks out. The evidence shows food trucks are actually a benefit to brick-and-mortar restaurants, driving more foot traffic that can scope out their amenities, like indoor seating, a liquor license, or someplace to watch a sports event. Many brick-and-mortars are also missing out on the opportunity of becoming food truck operators themselves, which can help introduce their menus or new dining concepts to more customers.
From additional tax revenue, to job creation, and greater choices for diners, Lincoln has much to gain from embracing food truck freedom. The city council and Mayor Beutler can send a strong message about their own priorities by welcoming these innovative businesses as equal members of the community.
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