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Council members discuss tightening mobile food vendor ordinance

Monday, June 22, 2009 by Laurel Wamsley

At last week’s City Council Health & Human Services Subcommittee meeting, City Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Mike Martinez were briefed on how the city regulates mobile food vendors, and were told by a large vending company, Snappy Snacks, that tighter rules were needed to keep customers safe.


Shannon Jones, Assistant Director of the Community Health Initiative Unit, gave an overview of the city’s requirements for mobile food vendors. Mobile vendors are governed by the health department and the Solid Waste Services department, said Jones, and the number of such vendors has increased markedly in recent years. Austin currently has 1,043 licensed mobile vendors, an increase of 28 percent since 2007. Jones also noted that the city has filed 243 cases against mobile food vendors for infractions such as operating without a permit or adulterating food.

Matthew Christianson, from Solid Waste Services, explained that in 2006 the City Council approved the current mobile vendor ordinance, which permits vendors to operate without a temporary food license and allows activity in all commercial zones. The ordinance regulates 10 aspects of the vendor’s business, from the stipulation that food trucks be located at least 50 feet from residential buildings to the lighting and signage they can use. Christianson said that the ordinance only applies to vendors who stay in a location for more than three hours, though the health department’s regulations apply to all mobile food vendors, regardless of their operating hours. Christianson explained that until 2006, there was no ordinance that allowed mobile food vending.

Three representatives from Snappy Snacks Mobile Catering urged the Council to consider amendments to the mobile food ordinance that would require stiffer regulations for food trucks. Snappy Snacks is a commissary that provides services to more than 70 caterers, according to the company’s representative, Paul Saldaña. Another representative of the company, Tom Ramsey, explained that in 2005 and 2006, Snappy Snacks updated water retention ponds and grease traps in and around their trucks, “with the understanding that others would have to be compliant, too.”

 

The company’s researcher, Judy Donahue, pointed to mobile food vendor ordinances in Houston, Dallas, and other Texas cities that have many more requirements for mobile vending permits, such as a notarized document of commissary use, itineraries of food trucks, and the use of commercially-regulated vehicles. Donahue said that she had seen a mobile food vehicle refashioned from a trailer and lined with carpeting, noting that the last page of the packets given to the Council members included photos of violations in Austin mobile food vendors.

Leffingwell and Martinez said that some of the suggestions were good ideas, though the presentation from Snappy Snacks raised some additional questions. They also noted that Snappy Snacks is located in Pflugerville, with its sales taxes going to that city, though many of its trucks do business in Austin. As a result, Leffingwell suggested the Council look into requiring mobile food vendors to have a sales tax license for the city in which they operate.

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