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Controversy brewing over potential new mobile vendor rules

Thursday, April 22, 2010 by Michael Kanin

A proposal from the City of Austin’s Health and Human Services Department (HHSD) could dramatically alter the way the city’s growing mobile food vendor industry operates. If enacted, the set of regulations pitched by HHSD and other city departments would add several layers of new permitting processes and nearly double the price for setting up a mobile food vendor.


A Council health subcommittee heard about the proposal this week. The suggestions were brought forward after the Council instructed city staff to respond to proposed rule changes for the industry offered by Tom Ramsey, the owner of local mobile catering firm snappy snacks.


Officials from the Austin Fire Department, the city’s Development Assistance Center, Austin Energy, and the Commercial Plan Review and Permit office then tacked on a few ideas of their own.


Proponents of the idea claim that the new rules would make for safer operations. However, a notable side effect of the regulations would be what some restaurateurs see as an equalizing of the food service bureaucracy.


Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Joe Limon told the committee that his department would offer a detailed inspection of mobile vending units. This would come with an annual $125 processing fee.


After Limon, Christopher Johnson from the Development Assistance Center in the city’s Planning Department expressed concerns about traffic and the vehicles that vendors use to operate their respective businesses. He asked for a $75 application fee for his department.


Joan Wilhite from Austin Energy’s One Stop Shop then told the committee that her department would like to engage in a more thorough review of vending sites. This would come with a $20 review fee.


Finally, Ron Menard of the city’s Commercial Plan Review and Permit department asked for the ability to review plans for mobile vendor sites. For an electric permit, a plumbing permit, a building permit, and a plan review, vendors would be looking at $119 in additional fees.


All of these changes would come in addition to Ramsey’s list. That document included 10 suggestions, including rules that would demand documentation of truck routes, written proof that there are restrooms available at mobile vending establishments, and “notarized documentation of daily commissary use,” a log of sorts to prove that vendors weren’t preparing food at an unauthorized facility.


City staff said vendors had mixed reactions to those proposals but staff asked Council Members to sign off on those and four others. 


After the presentation, Council Member and committee Chair Randi Shade asked Jones to define “the problem (the city) is trying to solve.” Jones told her that he was simply responding to the Ramsey proposal. Though he admitted that the number of complaints against mobile food vendors hadn’t increased, he suggested that overall risk had jumped with the dramatic influx of new vendors.


Before closing, HHSD Director David Lurie admitted that his team had yet to run any of the Fire Department, Development Assistance Center, Austin Energy, or Commercial Plan Review and Permit amendments by vendor stakeholders. This may have resulted in some loss of trust.


“I’ve got more concerns now than I had when we had our last meeting preparing for this,” Torchy’s Tacos owner Bob Gentry told In Fact Daily. “I felt like we had a clear direction then, but then we’ve had some last-minute additions to requests that they may want to put before the committee.”


Steve Simmons of Amy’s Ice Cream and Phil’s Ice House said that the new rules would even things out. “I do support entrepreneurship, but I … support it on a level playing field,” he said. “When we open a store we have to go though many, many, many, many inspections, many plan reviews, water, electric — everything has to be in compliance.”


He said, “a mobile vendor can pull a trailer up 20 feet from my stores and they’ve had one inspection and they don’t have to have parking requirements.”


Pushed by a time crunch created by a hard 5pm stop, and left with more questions after hearing the back and forth, the committee postponed any action it might take to a special meeting it will call for May 5.

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