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Coronavirus In Ohio: Few Food Trucks Biting At ODOT's Rest Stop Permits

A semi-truck rolls into the rest stop off I-71 near Sunbury.
Leticia Wiggins
WOSU Public Media
A semi-truck rolls into the rest stop off I-71 near Sunbury.

Hot meals are few and far between for truck drivers on the road. Even as truckers remain essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants have been limited to pickup or drive-through only.

“You can’t take an 18-wheeler through a drive-through,” says Tom Balzer, president of the Ohio Trucking Association.

This leaves many drivers at a loss.

“They can’t really get to a lot of places that you and I take for granted," Balzer says.

To give truckers a fair shot at fresh food, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) and Gov. Mike DeWine on April 10 announced that food trucks are now permitted to sell food at Ohio rest stops. Under normal circumstances, by federal law, only vending machines run by visually impaired entrepreneurs are allowed.

The current order opens rest stops to food vendors while prohibiting the sale of any beverage other than hot coffee, which maintains business for vending machine operators.

As of May 6, a total of 283 food vendors have completed the process and received permits from ODOT.

As of May 6, 283 food vendors have received permits from ODOT.
Credit ODOT
As of May 6, 283 food vendors have received permits from ODOT.

Matt Bruning, Press Secretary for ODOT, says this is a win-win for all involved.

“The truck drivers are going to benefit from the food trucks being there, the food trucks are going to benefit from the truck drivers being there, and the vending machine operators are going to benefit from both the truck drivers and the food truck operators being there,” Bruning says. “It’s a great symbiotic relationship with this situation that we’ve created.”

However, it's currently unclear exactly how many food trucks actually set up rest stops after filling out the application. 

Janire Mendez, who works at El Malecon Mexican Grill in Akron, says their truck set up at the normally bustling rest stop between Ashland and Lodi.

“We only had three truckers come by, the rest were people traveling – which baffled me,” Mendez says. 

While El Malecon was the only food truck set up at the stop, business was still slow.

“Is it perfect?” Bruning said. “Probably not... but it’s a good way to increase access to a hot meal for these vital truck drivers across the state of Ohio.”

Safety Concerns

Zach James, president of the Central Ohio Food Truck Association and owner of the Paddy Wagonfood truck, has concerns about the order.

“They just kind of opened the floodgates,” James says. “As exciting as it is to have this as an opportunity for these small businesses that are really struggling right now, it’s important that there’s accountability and that there’s clear parameters around how it’s done.”

In the days leading up to the announcement, James said ODOT called to ask his thoughts on the potential order. He said the idea could be successful with proper implementation, but as it stands, he thinks the current allowance is too “loose” and risks hurting food trucks rather than helping them.

Along with Amy Flottemesch, president of the Cincinnati Food Truck Association, and Lee Negrelli, vice president of the Northeast Ohio Food Truck Association, James demanded a number of revisions to the order in an April 13 letter to DeWine and ODOT. 

“We understand this is a temporary measure,” they wrote. “[But] if executed haphazardly, it may create an unsafe environment for patrons and employees.”

El Malecon Mexican Grill is one of the few food trucks that set up at an Ohio rest stop under ODOT's new permit.
Credit El Malecon Mexican Grill
El Malecon Mexican Grill is one of the few food trucks that set up at an Ohio rest stop under ODOT's new permit.

In the Cincinnati area, food truck owners have expressed concern about "congested" rest stops. With no centralized system designating food trucks to certain stops, there's potential for overcrowding, which presents not only safety issues but is also bad for business.

James likens the operation of a food truck to an airplane flight.

“For every hour you have in the air, you have four hours on the ground to prepare,” James says. “You know, you’re prepping, you’re filling fuel, you’re checking your water supply… And then once you get somewhere, you’re generally not going to move from that spot for a few hours.”

If there's only a handful of orders, that isn’t worth the time invested and can actually mean a financial loss.

Each temporary permit requires a valid health license number, automobile license plate number, and the county which health licenses are issued. The Ohio Highway Patrol is charged with checking for these assets – a task outside of their general training.

“It just kind of opens up the door to shady activity,” James says.

Some Structure Required

The mandate also means drivers are unable to advertise their location, something that's meant to deter the general public from driving to the nearest rest stop for a bite. At the same time, it makes it impossible for vendors to know who's staking their claim at the rest stop. 

The question becomes, who or what is in charge of managing food vender location.

“We just don’t have the manpower at ODOT to coordinate schedules for 86 rest areas,” Bruning says. 

The hope, Bruning says, was to have the food truck communities work together to coordinate rest stop assignment. But James says no one has time for that taks, which could itself be a full-time job. And some mobile food vendors aren’t part of the three Ohio-based food truck organizations.

“I can completely understand why the state of Ohio and ODOT wouldn’t want to spend the time to build something from scratch for this temporary program,” James says. “But let’s use some structure that the majority of this industry is familiar with and comfortable with.”

James and other food truck association presidents suggested tapping into a third-party application called StreetFoodFinder.com, which is already in use across the state not just for food trucks, but also by the city of Columbus, 3CDC Cincinnati City Management, and Downtown Cleveland Alliance. James says the system could have been used free of charge by ODOT.

Ultimately, James says he still appreciates the effort put forth by the governor and ODOT.

“I haven’t spoken to a single operator who doesn’t love the idea,” James says. “And we’re always the first ones to say that food trucks being literal restaurants on wheels have this unique ability to act as resources in situations like this.” 

Since the problem of limited restaurants is temporary, Bruning says, the order is too. He said the order came a week after concerns were first raised, and their main goal was to act quickly to solve a problem.

"This is really just meeting that need that we’re seeing right now, on a temporary basis,” Bruning says.

From the truck drivers’ perspective, Balzer finds the long-term implications of this virus more concerning than the dearth of hot meals.

“We literally deliver everything that everyone uses on a daily basis,” he says. “The fact that people are not consuming the way they used to is really a huge disruption.”

For the sake of drivers’ livelihoods, Balzer hopes that healthy consumer habits will “get things rolling again.”

Do you have questions about Ohio's coronavirus response? Ask below as part of our Curious Cbus series.