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Midtown mayhem


Inspectors shuttered a new night food market just as it started. Witnesses say there were mistakes on both sides.

Clifton Adcock September 7th, 2011

Several government agencies and vendors are grilling each other over the closure of some mobile food vendors at an outdoor event in Midtown on Aug. 26.

Planners of the H&8th nighttime food vendor event, held in the parking lot of Elemental Coffee, 815 N. Hudson, had been organizing the event since July, said co-organizer J.D. Merryweather (pictured). Food trucks and a large crowd were present for the event.

However, shortly after it started at 8 p.m., several ABLE Commission agents, city code inspectors and Oklahoma City-County Health Department inspectors showed up to the event, resulting in two of the three food trucks being shut down and it being effectively canceled.

While some of the issues surrounding the raid — such as the organizers holding the event despite a special event permit application being rejected by the city because of zoning issues — were legitimate, some of the vendors and organizers say the approach taken by the authorities was heavy-handed. The departments and agencies that performed the inspections, however, maintain they were just doing their job in protecting public safety and health, and the sweep was part of a larger, routine effort citywide.

Oklahoma City inspectors, the OKC fire and police departments, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and the ABLE Commission were all involved in the incident, although ABLE and the health department stated they were working independently.

According to John Maisch, ABLE’s general counsel, the ABLE Commission, along with the police department and the fire marshal, were working a joint operation involving a mixed beverage licensee, Ludivine, and a beer brewer, Coop Ale Works, that were selling alcohol in the same area as the food vendors.

Merryweather, who is also co-owner of Coop, said Ludivine was catering the event and selling Coop beer, and Ludivine owner and chef Jonathon Stranger said the ABLE inspectors, police and fire inspectors also visited his nearby restaurant.

Meanwhile, 16 health department employees showed up to the event along with city electrical and code inspectors, said Vicki Monks, spokeswoman for the health department.

None of the food vendors at the event were shut down by ABLE or the health department, but rather by city licensing and electrical inspectors, Monks and Maisch said.

Big Truck Tacos was not displaying the proper permit, according to city records, while a second truck operated by the Munch Box was having electrical problems.

Shane Mutz, co-owner of Munch Box, said his outfit was running late, and he began to do some prep-cooking when the power went off. When he asked what had happened, his father-in-law told him the city electrical inspector said the electrical hook-up wasn’t up to code and would result in a $1,200 fine if he did not unhook it.

Mutz said when he offered to get a generator to power the truck, a health official said inspectors would start checking the temperatures of refrigeration units and food once he did.

“They were looking for a reason to shut the thing down,” Mutz said. “It seemed that no matter what we were going to do, it wouldn’t make anybody happy.

“It kind of seemed they had an agenda to shut it down before it started. The force was overwhelming. It almost looked like the SWAT team out there. It seemed doomed from the start. No matter how compliant we were going to be, it was going to be unacceptable to them.”

Although the event was shuttered not long after it started, Merryweather said he hopes H&8th, which is planned to be monthly, will go on this month, depending on how well the city works with the vendors.

“It’s a valid event. People want to see it happen,” he said. “The citizens of Oklahoma City are the consumers and those agencies are the ones, if they’re going to govern what we do, it’s their responsibility to offer good customer service, and they treated us all like crap. It was not very pleasant, they were rude to quite a few people and people got rude back to them. It was not very civilized.”

Monks said health department inspectors team up with city inspectors once or twice annually to sweep the city’s 400 licensed mobile food vendors.

“We had all those inspectors because we were getting ready to do hundreds of mobile vendors on the south side,” Monks said. “It’s unfortunate that it looked like something it wasn’t. We really regret that because we’re just out to make sure food is safe.”

The health department inspected approximately 26 mobile food vendors on the south side that night, Monks said, and shut 10 of them down for violations ranging from allowing wastewater to flow out onto the street to not having hand-washing facilities. The city inspectors, meanwhile, cited four south-side vendors for unsafe electrical wiring and four for no outdoor sellers’ license.

“We don’t want to shut anybody down. We want them not to make anybody sick. We want to make sure they’re operating safely,” Monks said. “Our major mission in ensuring that this kind of activity thrives is to make sure that people don’t get sick when they eat the food that’s prepared in these units.”

The city met with several vendors Sept. 2 to address issues and discuss what needs to be done so events like H&8th can continue, said Oklahoma City spokeswoman Kristy Yager.

Stranger said he was upset that many people were getting dragged into a mess that should have been settled beforehand on both the organizers’ and inspectors’ part.

“The permit wasn’t done, it wasn’t set up properly by the host of the event and everybody kind of took the heat for their mistakes and weren’t honest to everybody about not getting the permit,” he said. “They knew they didn’t have it and tried to go forward with the event.”

Stranger said he understands the health department’s and ABLE’s roles, but he said both sides should have handled the issue better.

“All I want to see out of it is an understanding on both sides,” he said. “On the small-business side, cross your t’s and dot your i’s. And I think the city needs to be more responsible on the way they handle these matters.”

Photos by Mark Hancock

 
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