Photo | Shane Rice
Artious Walker has a history with the service industry and regulations. As a student at Alabama A&M University, Walker converted his dorm room into an illegal sandwich shop and started serving meals to the hungry masses.
Walker turned dressers into a countertop and used a George Foreman Grill as a sandwich press to offer food options that were famously unavailable on campus during the weekends.
“There weren’t many food options on campus at that time, especially on weekends,” he said. “I was trying to make a few dollars.”
He put up signs advertising his sandwiches for the low price of 50 cents and even used photos of rapper 50 Cent to help sell the items. Walker also had a somewhat flawless sales system. A base sandwich would come with just bread and meat. Cheese would be available at an additional cost to the consumer. He would let first-time customers try a grilled sandwich with cheese for no extra charge. Once customers got a taste, Walker said, they were hooked and he’d hit them with the extra charges the next time.
“After they tried it, they’d never go back,” he said. “Pretty soon, I was selling sandwiches for $1 each.”
Unfortunately for Walker, college authorities found out about his dorm room-based shop and shut it down. Seventeen years later, it’s a set of regulations proposed by members of the Mobile City Council that have Walker concerned about his food truck business.
Birthed from Walker’s long-time nickname, Smac’s Shack is a well-known food truck in the city that serves barbecue to hungry patrons. While he agrees some regulation of food trucks is necessary, he said some of the proposed rules seem to be put in place just to justify the changes themselves rather than provide a civic good.
“The [Mobile County] Health Department already inspects us and we all have business licenses,” he said. “A lot that is in there seems to me they are trying to justify the ordinance.”
The Mobile City Council will debate the proposed ordinance during a meeting of the body’s Finance Committee at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15. The regulations include restrictions on the distance an operator food truck, or trailer can park from a brick-and-mortar restaurant, the noise coming from generators and what can be left outside a truck during service, among other things.
Council President Levon Manzie said he revived the idea of regulations when he began hearing complaints about the trucks from downtown business owners. The councilman who represents the downtown area said he had begun thinking about tightening restrictions on the mobile eateries about two years ago, but the issue seemed to resolve itself at the time.
“I started getting more and more complaints, not only from brick-and-mortar restaurant owners, but from persons who stop and eat downtown,” he said. “I felt it was important to begin a discussion.”
The regulations in the ordinance come from rules made in a number of other cities, Manzie said.
“Oh my goodness,” he said. “We looked at so many ordinances. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to make the wheel work for us.”
If the proposed ordinance is voted into law, food trucks would not be able to park within 300 feet of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The specific distance, Manzie said, was borrowed from an ordinance in another city. Like much of the ordinance, the distance is subject to change based on what Manzie hopes is a lengthy discussion.
“We’re absolutely open to moving the distance to something that could be respected by all involved,” Manzie said. “However, some food truck operators would be against any distance at all and there are some restaurant owners who want it to be 1,000 feet. We’re inviting everyone to the table to offer perspective.”
Another possible regulation would require food trucks to be self-contained, which means operators would not be able to place chairs or tables outside the truck. Manzie said the rule was added because of complaints of cluttered sidewalks.
Food truck operators must apply for and receive a business license from the city. The license application must include the name, home and business address of the applicant; a description of the food and beverage to be sold; a description, photograph or drawing of the food truck itself; and proof of at least $1 million of liability/personal injury insurance.
In addition to the restrictions on placement near a restaurant, food trucks cannot operate in parks or other city property unless it is at a special event hosted by the city or at a special mobile food vending site.
Trucks must also apply and receive a special single-use permit to park in residential areas. The permit is only good for two hours at a time and cannot be issued for the same place more than two times per year.
A food truck cannot sell any merchandise other than food and drink, the proposed ordinance states. They can only operate between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and must return to a designated commissary kitchen on a daily basis.
Trucks must be 20 feet from any intersection and must obey setback restrictions. They also cannot take up more than two parking spaces. The generators on trucks can’t be louder than 80 decibels.
Overall, Walker said the regulations aren’t overly onerous and would help food truck operators mind their “P’s and Q’s.” He called the 300-feet restriction “silly” though, and argued someone going for a dine-in experience isn’t going to go to a food truck and vice versa.
Walker, who works as an engineer downtown, mentioned the Wednesday chicken special at Mama’s on Dauphin as an example.
“Mama’s has chicken on Wednesdays,” he said. “You could throw 30 food trucks at me and I’ll still say ‘no, thanks.’ I think about that chicken starting at about 10:30 on Wednesdays.”
Lorenzo Ferguson III, owner of Fit Kits food truck, said the possible regulations amount to obstacles similar to what every business owner must overcome to be successful.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to be innovative and not let obstacles get in your way,” he said. “We all know Mobile, Alabama, is not as food truck friendly as other cities and states.”
Ferguson said the food truck business model is the one he and his ilk have chosen. Brick-and-mortar restaurant owners chose a different business model, he said.
“There’s competition all over the place,” he said. “We’re all here for a common goal: to serve our fellow man.”
Fit Kits, which started as a healthy meal preparation operation, has found success in the local food truck market. So much success, in fact, Ferguson is planning to start a second truck at the end of September, with plans to open up brick-and-mortar franchises.
While brick-and-mortar restaurants claim to be disadvantaged compared to food trucks, Walker argued food trucks can be disadvantaged by stigmas related to the mobile food business. For instance, he said, food trucks tend to be labeled as a giant monolith, meaning a bad experience at one can taint a diner’s experience at all of them going forward. Walker said customers treat brick-and-mortar places differently, meaning bad service at one doesn’t necessarily mean a diner stops eating at them all.
Tuvan Helvacioglu has a unique perspective on the issue as a former restaurant franchise owner turned food truck operator. The owner of The Good Guys Mobile Food Unit and former owner of a Samurai J in downtown Mobile said he doesn’t have a problem with many of the new regulations, but called the 300-foot restriction “a little extreme.”
“You have restaurants right next to each other,” he said. “Why restrict it on food trucks?”
Helvacioglu also took issue with the two parking lot restrictions, saying his rig includes a trailer and usually needs five spots.
However, Helvacioglu said he doesn’t typically pick a random spot to set up. Instead, he gets invited to swim clubs and other businesses to serve food.
“I tried just showing up and selling to the public, but it wasn’t for me,” he said. “You have to establish yourself. You have to go there constantly and I don’t have time for that.”
Jason Harsany, owner of Smokin’ Gringos taco truck, said he agrees with some of the restrictions, including the one pertaining to generator noise. He takes issue with the 300-foot restriction, but acknowledged that would mostly impact food trucks downtown.
Smokin’ Gringos has been in business for 11 years and has recently spent most of its time in neighborhoods and places on private property where the truck is invited, Harsany said.
The truck also serves once or twice per week at Bebo’s Springhill Market on Old Shell Road, Harsany said.
Others felt the restrictions didn’t go far enough in some areas.
Carol Hunter, a spokesperson for the Downtown Mobile Alliance, said the new ordinance allows too much generator noise, as written. Hunter said at 80 decibels a generator would be allowed to match the level of noise of a passing freight train.
“The decibel level — we’d like that to be lower,” Hunter said.
The alliance thinks the decibel level should be lowered to 60, which matches many other cities’ ordinances pertaining to food trucks. Hunter said “quiet” generators usually produce less than 50 decibels of sound.
David Rasp, the owner of two downtown restaurants including Heroes Sports Bar & Grille, said restaurant owners downtown are not anti-food trucks, but they would like to find a way to coexist with the other business model.
Unlike the food truck operators, Rasp said he feels the 300-foot rule is “fair.”
“It effectively protects brick and mortar from people who are chasing the same customer base,” he said. “I think that’s reasonable.”
Rasp also believes noise control and restrictions on trash are fair. In the past, Rasp has watched food trucks use garbage cans meant for Heroes.
“To me, it’s all about proximity, noise, waste disposal and fumes,” he said. “They’re really supposed to be self-contained. That’s really the biggest thing to me.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).