SAVANNAH, GA - Over the last few years, many urban gourmands have turned their attention from traditional restaurants toward a growing trend of pop–up restaurants, food trucks and other mobile establishments where entrepreneurs and foodies peddle their culinary creations.
In cities like Austin, Los Angeles, Portland, New York and Chicago, this new class of cooks, working from elaborately modified trailers and tricked out chuck wagons have become as engrained a part of local gastronomy as their forefathers, the ice cream truck and the hot dog cart.
The question asked with increasing frequency lately is “Why don’t we have any in Savannah?”
Like so many things in this town, the answer stirs up a pot of interested entrepreneurs, convoluted bureaucracy and peculiar policies. The good news is it might be getting better.
At a meeting last week in the Creative Coast office, more than 40 people showed up to take part in a conversation with Tom Vanderhorst, the City of Savannah’s Revenue Director, and Randolph Scott, the head of the City’s Zoning Department, both of whom play a crucial role in the permitting process for mobile vendors.
Vanderhorst, who moved to Savannah from Ohio six months ago to take over the position vacated by Buddy Clay, called the level of citizen interest in the issue “exciting.”
The turnout surprised Creative Coast Executive Director Jake Hodesh, who initially proposed the meeting expecting maybe a half dozen people.
“I wanted to see if the Creative Coast could help on a project like this,” he told us before the meeting. “Could we be a bridge between the entrepreneur community and the City?”
The answer seems to be yes.
The crowd included restaurant owners, entrepreneurs, a professor, an economist and people who were “just interested.”
The group asked questions, raised issues and attempted to clarify their understanding of laws governing food carts locally and at the state level.
“My understanding was that it was pretty much impossible,” says Brittney Blackshear, who is starting a business called Crepe–A–Diem. She was interested in having a food cart before finding out how difficult the process was. “I was going to go to the meeting and see what the progress is and what people are saying.”
The rules surrounding mobile vending in Savannah, particularly for food service, are confounding at best. There are specific areas where vendors can set up, myriad requirements for ownership, different sets of rules during festivals than during the rest of the year, regularly changing requirements from the health department, and a bevy of other considerations.
“Some of the ordinances we enforce aren’t that well written,” says Vanderhorst during the meeting. He’s had to learn the ropes of the local system since taking the job; the 2011 Revenue Ordinance for Savannah is 157 pages long, and that’s just the beginning.
In order to have a food cart in Savannah, the owner must secure the following: Sales tax ID from the state Department of Revenue, a permit from the state Department of Agriculture (for baked goods, seafood or certain other items), inspection and approval by the Health Department, verification from the City’s Zoning department that it’s a permissible use, a business tax certificate from the City Department of Revenue, and (depending on the location), approval from either the Parks Department, Leisure Services or the Traffic Department.
It’s this labyrinth of “competing bureaucracies,” as one potential vendor described it that makes getting clear information on the process so difficult.
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