Ordinance would set stage for truck-side cuisine in Jackson

June 19, 2011

Economic Development

City Councilman Quentin Whitwell has cooked up an idea he thinks will add to Jackson’s “coolness” quotient and give an economic boost to boot.

Whitwell, the Ward 1 rep who took office after a special election earlier this year, wants to see food trucks flood the city to offer passersby cooked-on-the-spot cuisine.

The food trucks affectionately known for decades as “Tomaine Wagons” and “Roach Coaches” can continue catering to construction sites and factory entrances or anywhere else in the city under his plan. But Whitwell says his real goal is to help Jackson capitalize on a new national fondness for food with a flair served from trucks the size of RVs.

“What I’m trying to address is the cool, hip and trendy cuisine component that has hit as a rage across the country,” Whitwell said.

The food trucks, he said, are “an inexpensive way for start -up chefs to get known and to bring quality food to foodies.”

His food truck measure, known officially as the “Food Vending Units” ordinance, is set for a City Hall public hearing at 6 p.m. June 21 followed by a vote of the council’s Rules Committee. Passage there would later get the ordinance a final vote by the full council.

Whitwell said his ordinance has undergone a half-dozen rewrites since he introduced it in April. One staff rewrite concluded the trucks should be limited to Fondren and downtown.

That met with objections from Whitwell, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. Make it citywide, he insisted. “Why stifle people’s creativity?”

One rewrite provision that remains specifies that licensed food truck vendors must either already operate a restaurant in the city or have equipment on the food truck to prepare the food that is sold.

“You’re going to have to make it right there from the truck or have a licensed restaurant where you make it,” he said.

As he has moved the ordinance toward a final vote, he has had his “ear bent at numerous venues,” Whitwell said, mainly from restaurant owners in the city who want assurances the mobile food vendors won’t be interfering with their businesses.

One protection given established restaurants is a ban on the trucks operating within 150 feet of any business that sells food. The ban is waived if the bricks-and-mortar business gives the mobile vendor permission to set up inside the 150 feet.

Some of the ear-bending has come from Jeff Good, managing partner of Mangia Bene Inc., a Jackson restaurant company that owns Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint, BRAVO! Italian Restaurant & Bar and Broad Street Baking Company & Café.

Good, in an interview last week, said he had been concerned that mobile vendors who come in from Flowood or other communities outside Jackson would not have to pay the city’s 2 percent hospitality tax that funds the Visitor & Convention Bureau and the Convention Center Complex. Caterers from out of town who cater events in Jackson are exempted from the tax, said Good, a member of the Convention Complex’s governing board.

Whitwell said at Good’s urging, he changed the ordinance to require that vendors have a city business license and tax ID number. That way they become subject to the hospitality tax, Whitwell said.

Good said he also expects the mobile vendor will be subject to state health licensing rules that require fixed staging areas as well as sinks and other food preparation equipment aboard the trucks.

“Each of these entities is going to have to have staging areas,” he said.

Whitwell said the ordinance he wrote has health safety provisions more stringent than those of the state.

Good has been slammed in the Jackson blogosphere as trying to weaken the options of mobile vendors to protect established restaurants. Not true at all, Good insisted, saying he looks forward to enjoying the roadside fare. “I’ll be first in line to get a taco from the taco truck.”

Under Whitwell’s ordinance, vendors must pay a $150 license fee to the city and submit a “moving restaurant” plan to the Planning Department. The plan will outline a path of four different locations the vendor plans to stop at each day, Whitwell said, and noted a vendor can alter the path after notifying the city.

“I would like to see groups of trucks in locations. The more the merrier,” he said.

He said he expects four or five locations will quickly gain reputations as hot spots. “They’ll be able to use Facebook or Twitter” to let customers know where they will be being at each part of the day, Whitwell said.

He said he expects it will be mostly “a lunch thing” and predicted downtown’s Smith Park on Congress Street will be among the prime locations.

Meanwhile, Jackson resident Fred Garrot sees the ordinance’s passage as a way to go into the traditional hotdog vending business downtown and raise money for animal rescue efforts. He said his plan to cook the hotdogs on pushcarts complies with the on-site preparation rule. “For some people that may be an obstacle,” Garrot said.

“Hotdogs” or “anything else” people feel like cooking and serving will be fine, Whitwell said. “We’re allowing entrepreneurs to utilize their own creativity.”

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