New rules for mobile vendors are shaping up
more safeguards, new fees to be suggested to council panel today
What more can city government do to ensure public health and safety in the booming mobile food vending industry? And what makes Austin weird?
Questions about government oversight, food safety and, yes, Austin culture rose to the fore of a debate triggered more than a year ago as the city began weighing whether to toughen the city’s mobile food vending ordinance.
Today, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is scheduled to present a set of final recommendations to a City Council committee.
The recommendations seem to satisfy some vendors who were concerned that more regulation could come with higher fees and expenses, possibly forcing some out of business. But the proposed changes aren’t likely to end the debate; a representative for one vendor said he expects to press his case that more safeguards are needed.
The proposals would add at least $250 in new permitting fees. A proposal considered earlier requiring vendors to show proof of product liability will not be recommended.
“Our goal was to ensure public health. That was our priority,” said Shannon Jones, assistant director for public health with the Austin/ Travis County health department, which led the city review. “However, we had to balance the economics of what we were doing, allowing
Continued from A for businesses to continue to function and to meet the public health threshold.”
Under the recommendations, mobile food vendors would have to comply with new requirements, including:
Provide proof of a state sales tax permit.
Pass inspection by the Fire Department.
Document use of central food preparation facilities and provide notarized certification of the facilities.
Provide an itinerary of truck routes.
Provide written permission for employees to use restrooms at the businesses from which the vendors lease space.
The three-member City Council health and human services committee could vote to send the recommendations to the full council for a possible decision later this summer.
That would be a milestone in a lengthy process that included several meetings with mobile vendors, some of whom in May sought to draw distinctions between those who operate the trendy fixed-location trailers and those who cater to workers at construction sites and office towers.
Trailer operators complained that new layers of government regulation were unnecessary and would hurt the businesses that add to Austin’s charm.
State food establishment code, however, does not differentiate based on where mobile vendors operate, and neither will the city, Jones said.
But an earlier proposal that would have added oversight by other city departments, potentially adding expensive new fees — the source of some of the fixed trailer operators’ main objections — was dropped.
“I don’t totally agree with all of them, but I think for the good of the entire group, they’re good,” Bob Gentry, coowner of Torchy’s Tacos, said of the proposed rules. Torchy’s operates a trailer in a South First Street food court.
But Paul Saldaña, a consultant who represents Tom Ramsey, the owner of a Pflugerville-based company that leases a fleet of trucks to independent operators, said the city could do more to protect health and safety.
Saldaña said he would present photos at today’s hearing depicting city code violations by what Ramsey claims are rogue mobile vendors.
The city began its review after Ramsey urged the City Council in May of last year to add teeth to the mobile food vending ordinance.
Ramsey said that he had identified 42 regulations imposed in other Texas cities, but not in Austin, and that while the mobile food vending business was exploding — the city counted 648 vendors in 2006, a number expected to double by October — illegitimate vendors were flooding the market and exploiting gaps in Austin’s rules.
Saldaña said the city is issuing permits to vendors who are not using central food preparation facilities as required by state rules and selectively enforcing certain provisions, such as those dealing with sanitation and waste disposal.
Jones said that the city’s expectations are the same for all vendors but that the state rules allow the city some flexibility as long as public health demands are met.