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Nathan Baker

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Can city rules stomach food trucks?

July 31st, 2014 9:31 pm by Nathan Baker

Can city rules stomach food trucks?

Jason Howze says Noli, the new food truck stationed in downtown Johnson City the past few weeks, has been an undertaking years in the making. (Nathan Baker/Johnson City Press)

The purveyors of a new mobile eatery in downtown Johnson City are hitching their wagon to the recent rise in popularity of food trucks, although some regulatory speed bumps may slow progress.

During the height of the lunch rush Thursday, the line was about five deep at the window of Noli, a sleek black trailer set up in the parking lot of the former Free Service Tire building at the intersection of Buffalo Street and State of Franklin Road.

As Jason Howze took down orders, chef Tyler Humphrey worked the grill and pushed his hand-crafted handheld food out the other end of the truck to the hungry customers.

“The demand is clear as day,” Howze said after the crowd had been fed. “You just have to look around downtown to see that it needed a drop-spot food truck.”

Although Noli, named after the Nolichucky River that winds its way through the southern part of the region, has only been in town three weeks, the business has been years in the making.

“In 2010, we saw the interest in getting a simple lunch faster and faster,” he said. “We’ve taken that and added in our own ideas for flavors using natural ingredients.”

Noli’s easy-to-handle, yet complex meals, use exotic flavors — like tzatziki, a Greek yogurt sauce — and ingredients grown on an affiliated farm in Howze’s hometown of Erwin.

“We’re not a chain, we don’t cater to the masses,” Howze said. “We’re content setting up shop here for four hours and feeding about 200 people a day.”

The business, operated under Bread Truck LLC, does have a five-year growth plan.

Howze said the model includes adding a second truck specifically to attend festivals and strengthened partnerships with other downtown restaurants.

Howze’s baptism by fire into the culinary church came through work experience in the kitchen of Tipton Street Pub under owner Sean Fleming, now a partner in Noli and Holy Taco and Cantina.

Those relationships should help create mutually beneficial arrangements between the fledgling food truck and the brick-and-mortar eateries, giving the rooted restaurants a professional mobile platform to reach new audiences, Howze said.

With Noli’s foot poised on the accelerator pedal, the only things clogging the engine are local regulations, or the lack of them.

Noli, which Howze said is a licensed and titled vehicle in Tennessee, was told by Johnson City codes enforcers it couldn’t operate in the public Cherry Street lot a few weeks ago.

“The problem is there aren’t any city regulations dealing with food trucks,” Howze said, an assertion Johnson City Chief Building Official Dave Jenny confirmed.

“We do not have a die-hard, set-in-stone ordinance on food trucks,” Jenny said. “We know it’s an up-and-coming thing, so we’ve been discussing getting some started, but we really just don’t have any rules yet.”

In the Cherry Street lot, Jenny said another vendor, who was previously denied a permit to operate there, complained to city officials when he noticed Noli serving food.

For now, similar establishments will be allowed to operate on private property anywhere in the city — with the owner’s permission — as long as they have a valid business license and have been inspected by the health department and the fire department if they have a grease hood.

Jenny said he and other city employees have examined the food truck ordinances of Nashville and Knoxville to gather information, but do not have a timeline regarding when one might be enacted.

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