Well, for those of you who did not read Juan Castillo\’s piece in the Austin American Statesman this morning, you can do so here. The fact is there is a LOT more to the story than he printed, or than I will write here. But here goes a brief summary:
Tom Ramsey of Snappy Snacks presented to the Austin City Council 42 proposals ranging from reasonable to ridiculous to \”protect\” his industry of mobile catering trucks. It has since been narrowed down to 10 recommendations, plus new ones from the DAC (Development Assistance Center), Austin Energy, The Austin Fire Department, The Austin Water/Watershed Department, Zoning and Compliance, et al. Snappy Snacks runs close to 80 catering trucks, the type that you see on construction sites, etc. He\’s been upset that both his business has been off, of course so is construction, as well as what he perceives as unsafe business practices of his competition. He presented several photos that his staff has taken of people allegedly stocking competitive catering trucks from their homes, traveling with propane unsafely mounted to their vehicles, etc. My major problem with Mr. Ramsey\’s argument is that these people are currently operating outside the laws now. What would give him or anyone the idea that with more laws and regulations they will suddenly comply? Further, as a frequenter myself of \”trailer food\” businesses, I will not return if I\’ve had a bad experience. Instead of letting the free market decide where you will go for food, Mr. Ramsey wants to use the Austin City Council to police his competition. One could argue that if more time was spent improving the product that one sells and less time taking photos of the competition, there may be less of a downturn in business.
So, this is where it started. Now enter Steve Simmons of Amy\’s Ice Cream and most recently Parind Voira of Restaurant Jezebel and Simplicity Wine & Eats. These two local business owners claim they are \”truly interested\” in supporting the entrepreneurial spirit of Austin including the trailer food vendors BUT (I was once told whenever someone uses but in this type of context, they negate what they just said)…BUT, they want an \”even playing field\”. Well let\’s look at what their influence on the City of Austin has created for an \”even playing field\”. Per the City\’s own research, they contend that the first year (average) trailer does $50,000 in revenue. They now plan to have a mandatory $ 34,400 in city imposed construction, fees and permits. Keep in mind, that currently ALL mobile food vendors (who are compliant…approximately 1200) have FULL Health Permits annually as well as a surprise inspection at some point during the year. This $34,400 does not include a single ingredient, rent, employee wages, utilities, or Heaven forbid profit. Compare that to a successful \”brick and mortar\”, that does, let\’s say, $1,000,000 per year in sales. Would they spend the equivalent of $688,000 just to meet city code? Not even close. Surely they might in build out and purchase of a location but no business could survive if they were so heavily burdened.
So, why target the trailer businesses? Must be a health issue, right? Wrong. Since, 2006 mobile food vendors (according to the City of Austin Health Department) have had 5 reported incidents of food borne illnesses. Though, in 2006 there were only 648 trailers and they have now grown to 1200 that is still less than 1.25/1200 (approximately 1%). Compared to traditional restaurants, of which there are a reported 4,360 in Austin, 699 food borne illness complaints were made just last year for a whopping 16% comparison.
Perhaps these businesses are targeted because they are causing a \”black eye\” for the Austin community. Quite the contrary, the Austin trailer food scene has drawn the attention of the New York Times, The Food Network, Nation\’s Restaurant News and others. We regularly meet people at our trailer and at the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery who have traveled from out of state or even from other countries to visit Austin. At the top of their \”to do list\”…visit the Austin food trailers.
No, I\’m afraid the answer is plain and simple. Some business owners in Austin are looking for any answer that they can do defend to themselves, shareholders and business partners why their business is off. The idea of shining the spotlight on themselves is not an option. And, after all, who is getting all the press? It must be the \”unfair advantage\” that trailers have. My question for them is, if we have an unfair advantage, why not open a trailer and compete with us? For the cost of one brick and mortar (due to real estate and build out costs, not city codes) one could open 20 trailers. And is it really apples to apples? Look at last year for example. What was it, 3 months straight of 100+ temperature days? People were hardly clamoring at the opportunity to stand in line at a trailer and sit in a dusty parking lot. Traditional restaurants, however with their air conditioned dining experience, did just fine…though, evidently not enough.
It\’s sad to see some of these businesses that I personally (used to) respect take this approach. Local icons that were David fighting Goliath. Now, as they\’ve become Goliath themselves, I believe that they have forgotten what got them there in the first place. By losing sight of who they were they risk everything that they are.
Though it started with Mobile Catering trucks complaining about other catering trucks, the \”site specific\” trailers that we all know and love have been dragged into this fight. Ironically, the Snappy Snacks trucks will be exempt from most all of the $34,400 charges noted above. At risk, Flip Happy Crepes, Hey Cupcake, Torchy\’s Tacos, Izzoz Tacos, The Mighty Cone, etc. The nameless catering trucks that few of you know will not even be affected by these proposals. I am imploring all Austinites, regardless of your position on this issue to come to City Hall on Wednesday 5/5 at 3PM. Let the City Council subcommittee hear your opinions. If these regulations pass, you will most certainly see the end of the trailer food scene in Austin. Don\’t complain about it later…do something about it now!