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Nampa food trucks say regulations are threatening their businesses. What just happened

Angela Palermo/apalermo@idahostatesman.com

Rae-Ann Birney and Sonia Champlin packed up everything they owned and moved to Nampa in 2019 to pursue their dream of opening a coffee shop. The close friends poured everything they had into the venture, hoping to provide a better life for their families after leaving Las Vegas.

The pair bought a food truck from New Mexico on eBay and a year later opened a mobile coffee truck called The Perking Spot in a large empty parking lot at the corner of Caldwell Boulevard and Karcher Road, behind Shari’s.

For a while, business was slow. “We sat there every day from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., pulling the truck in and out, running the diesel, just for four customers to stop by,” Birney said.

But by 2022, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions eased, the business had built a regular clientele: “They’re on the go. They’re going to work. They’re commuters. They’re moms in their car hustling to school. Consistency is so important to that business model.”

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Now, regulations the city of Nampa is imposing threaten that business model, Birney said. In October, they received a letter notifying them that the city planned to enforce local laws governing food trucks and was considering further changes to the status quo.

Vendors on private property affected by city ordinances

Even though The Perking Spot is on private property, and has a lease with the property owner to be there, the coffee truck is at odds with the city, which proposed new regulations that would bar food trucks from parking overnight or connecting to power poles. The coffee truck is powered by a private light pole for which Birney obtained a permit to install.

Birney, Champlin and at least two dozen other food truck owners and supporters waited hours Monday night for the Nampa City Council to move through its various agenda items and onto a public hearing where they could testify about the impact the regulations would have on their businesses. The council planned to vote after on whether to establish a new license for mobile food vendors. Food trucks now fall under a subsection of city ordinances titled “peddlers and solicitors.”

Before the hearing, which the city attorney reminded the council multiple times that it did not have to conduct, City Clerk Char Tim gave a presentation in which she said food trucks operating from a single site, rather than moving from location to location, are violating city laws.

“What we’re dealing with right now are semipermanent structures that are operating under a mobile food license,” Tim said. “They’re not a permanent structure, so therefore they are not required to follow the same regulations as those that are brick and mortar. But they also are not mobile as they are not moving, and therefore they are not in compliance with the mobile food regulations.”

She said the proposed regulations are nearly identical to what’s already outlined in the city’s laws regulating food trucks — laws that the city only recently began enforcing.

“It’s going to run everyone out of business,” Champlin said at the hearing.

Champlin and Birney took out an $80,000 small-business loan in early 2022 to build a larger 27-foot trailer because things were going well, Birney told the Idaho Statesman by phone. The trailer remains at 1813 Caldwell Blvd., and the truck is now used for events. But the city told The Perking Spot in March to halt the drive-thru portion of its business, which had operated for the last three years. Birney, a single mother of three boys, said she estimates ending the drive-thru will cost them at least half of their business.

“It’s just been one hurdle after the next,” Birney said.

Institute for Justice says restrictions are unconstitutional

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that fights what it calls government overreach, has tried to step in. The firm sent a letter to city officials strongly urging them to “cease all enforcement of current and future regulations against mobile food vendors who are doing business on private property and complying with all safety precautions outlined in the city’s code,” said a Thursday news release from the firm.

Erica Smith Ewing, an Institute for Justice attorney, told the Statesman on Monday that it would be unconstitutional for the city to restrict mobile food vendors on private property.

“In fact, we’ve sued several other cities for imposing restrictions on food trucks on private property,” Ewing said by phone.

Ewing said the law firm has seen some evidence that suggests the city is moving forward with the regulations to protect restaurants from nearby competition. Cities can act to protect health and safety, she said, but they can’t play favorites.

“It’s not the government’s job to be picking winners and losers in the marketplace,” she said.

At the Monday hearing, Mayor Debbie Kling interjected to clarify that the regulations were not brought forth because of complaints from brick and mortar restaurants. “That really isn’t the basis,” she said.

But Tim, the city clerk, told the council it appears there are unfair business advantages to owning a food truck over a brick and mortar restaurant. She cited the low cost of a mobile food license. She said the city’s goal “is to be fair to everyone.”

She added that it was unclear where local food trucks were disposing of their grease and gray water, which City Councilman Randy Haverfield persistently asked of every vendor who testified.

Haverfield asked Ryan Chesler, who owns Fly Food Truck with his wife, Jordan, about what type of hood vent their food truck has, what they do for pre-treatment so oil “doesn’t go back into the sewer,” and what kind of holding tank they use for the grease.

Chesler said he changes the food truck’s frying oil every 40 hours.

“I have the fryers and they’re contained,” he said. “We have metal, sealed, food-grade containers that lock to keep that contained and strapped in while I drive to my next location. I have a commercial space that I lease over off of Karcher, and I have a bulk container there that twice a year I have Eco of Idaho come in, pump that oil and recycle it.”

‘Are you bringing the taco truck with you?’

Tim Cook, the owner of Big Box Outlet Store, a discount store in Nampa, testified in favor of the local food trucks. He said they’re often a late-night option that fills the void when restaurants close for the evening.

He allows food trucks to do business from the parking lot of his store, and they pay him rent.

“When my business grew and I had to move to a newer location, most of our customers, many, many, many of them, said ‘Are you bringing the taco truck with you?’” Cook said. “There’s a reason for that.”

Chad Hartley, the owner of Stella’s Ice Cream, which has several locations in the Treasure Valley as well as a mobile truck, also spoke at the hearing. So did Kevin Mcintosh, who runs the Kilted Kod, a popular food truck that sells fish and chips in the Boise area. Daisy Mendez spoke on behalf of her parents, who own Taco El Tesorito at 1707 Garrity Boulevard.

Several testimonies from the small business owners were followed by cheers from the audience, until Kling reminded attendees that “we don’t typically allow any applause in a meeting.”

After the long public-comment period, the councilors decided to table a decision on the mobile food vendor regulations for a later date and encouraged more feedback from the community.

“We want to work with you,” City Councilwoman Natalie Jangula said. “We want to hear from you guys and I think that we can collaborate and make some good decisions. We’re not here to squash you guys by any means. We love our small businesses. We’ll get it right, we just need your help.”

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