In a parking lot near 11th Street and Lewis Avenue, the smell of onions, peppers and spices fills the air. As customers walk through the parking lot to buy some lunch, they appreciate the entrepreneurship of this mobile Mexican restaurant, big enough only to take up one parking space in the lot.
For almost two years, Francisco Gonzalez has set up shop here and often is the face behind the service window of his mobile food trailer.
Recently, the owner of Tacos Fiesta Mexicana has been visited by city officials, people who have turned the past few weeks into a confusing mess, Gonzalez said. The city gave Gonzalez a notice in March stating that he needed to pay a $750 application fee to be heard by the Board of Adjustments to gain a special exception to the city's zoning code. After being told a refusal to pay would result in the city closing down his business, Gonzalez wrote the check. But when city officials met April 20 to discuss the issue of zoning for mobile food vendors, Gonzalez was told his check was in the mail -- on its way back to him.
After the City Council met to discuss the proper way to combat the zoning issue for mobile food vendors, an agreement was made to look into these businesses further and set up possible guidelines through the creation of a task force. Until further notice, the city has stopped enforcing the $750 requirement.
"We just saw that the zoning aspect really wasn't serving as the appropriate mechanism to help sustain compatibility for these mobile vendors," said Jack Page, Tulsa's director of development services.
With more than 100 mobile food vendors throughout the city, the city began looking into these businesses in response to safety concerns from citizen complaints and to ensure they were compatible with neighboring properties, Page said. Notices like the one received by Gonzalez were passed out throughout the city in an attempt to adhere to zoning regulations.
The $750 application fee did not guarantee the business owners would be granted the special exception, and if a special exception were granted, it would last a maximum of 179 days a year.
The task force, which will include two mobile food vendor owners, will have its first meeting April 29.
Page said current zoning policies cannot easily regulate these businesses. According to zoning guidelines, a mobile vendor must be an accessory to the principal use of the property it is occupying. For example, although a hot dog stand might not receive complaints for being parked at a hardware store, it would not meet zoning rules because the principal use of the hardware store is not a restaurant.
In other instances, a vendor might be parked in a strip mall that includes restaurants. The mobile business might not pay rent but would still be in direct competition with the restaurants on the property. Because the strip mall includes businesses that have the principal use of being a restaurant, the vendor would be following zoning codes, Page said.
To avoid these problems, Page said other cities often regulate mobile food businesses through business licenses.
The fact that Gonzalez was able to show city workers his business license, sales tax permit and licenses from the health department, all of which he keeps at his mobile restaurant on the property he rents from a nearby store, added to his confusion over why he was being told he was not conducting business legally.
"I'm still confused," he said. "I try to understand what they want me to do, because we do everything by the law. We haven't done anything wrong."
What Would Austin or San Antonio Do?
City Councilor Jim Mautino said much of the confusion can be blamed on city permits rather than zoning issues. Although several mobile food vendors had permits, they might not have the correct one. One city permit is for a mobile truck, "but when you pull it up to the lot and jack that thing up, you just put yourself in a different category," he said. "You're now a permanent fixture, and you need a different kind of permit."
Some city officials worry that this issue is not completely about zoning and permits but was initially sparked by racism.
"I honestly think it's a personal attack on the Hispanic community," said Francisco Treviño, president of the Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
This attack on the Hispanic community also affects a number of African Americans who own mobile food businesses, he said. Treviño admits there needs to be a balance between these businesses and proper licensing, but the process needs to be easier for food vendors to get everything the city requires.
At the meeting on April 20, Treviño said he saw the food vendors make some progress by showing the councilors that many of them pay sales taxes, have the necessary city and county licenses and pass routine health inspections. However, he said he felt that these guidelines were not as important as race for some city leaders.
Mautino received complaints for his comments published in a March 25 Tulsa World article about the mobile food vendors. Mautino was quoted saying, "This is Third World stuff," and that when new residents of the country "come here we assimilate them into our lifestyle and our politics; it's not the other way around."
Luis Flores, attorney at 1515 S. Denver Avenue law offices, contacted Mautino demanding an apology on behalf of the Hispanic community after reading the article.
"(He) made what I considered to be very derogatory remarks to the Hispanic community, especially coming from a councilman who heads a predominantly Hispanic district," Flores said. "I read that this city ordinance was going to be implemented, but I felt that from the tone of the article and Mr. Mautino's comments, this ordinance was not going to be applied across the board but just to certain individuals, in this case, Hispanic mobile food vendors."
Flores never received an apology. Mautino said his statements were prompted by an e-mail he received with a picture of a "homemade trailer," which sold food but did not include the necessary equipment to pass a health inspection.
As for new residents assimilating to the U.S., Mautino said this statement stemmed from what he was taught as a child.
"My parents came from Italy and their opinion was when you're in Rome you do like the Romans, when you're in America you do like the Americans," he said. "You come to this country and you don't change this country. You can add things that come from your country, but you abide by our laws."
Despite the racial accusations tied throughout the topic, Treviño said he thinks a positive outcome can result from the task force. He hopes the response is fair, so these business owners can get back to work without worrying that tomorrow they might be shut down.
"They just want to put food on their tables for their families," he said.
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