Baltimore: After a Close Call, Mayor Grants City’s Food Trucks a Reprieve

Irene Smith, the owner of Souper Freak food truck, calls a friend after a city official warned her that she lacked a crucial permit. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun Photo / May 11, 2011)
By Richard Gorelick | The Baltimore Sun  

Irene Smith, the owner of Souper Freak food truck, calls a friend after a city official warned her that she lacked a crucial permit. (Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun Photo / May 11, 2011)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake came to the rescue of Baltimore’s fledgling food truck scene Wednesday after a city official targeted a few of the mobile businesses because he said they lacked proper permits.

Alvin O. Gillard — chairman of the city’s street vendors board — informed two trucks that they now must have a street vendors license, commonly used by small sidewalk carts. Although the permit costs only $25, Gillard told the truck operators that they would have to wait until June to have them approved. The requirement would have affected most of the city’s food truck fleet, and the approval process could have put several out of business, the owners said.

But by midafternoon, Rawlings-Blake tweeted her support for the trucks and asked city agencies to work with the businesses to ensure that they have the proper permits. In the meantime, the food trucks will be able to operate as usual, said Ryan O’Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor.

Souper Freak owner Irene Smith said Gillard approached her truck Wednesday morning near Calvert and Monument streets. Gillard told Smith that she was in violation of an ordinance prohibiting her truck from being within 300 feet of a retail establishment selling similar merchandise.

Smith said she offered to move, but Gillard told her that her real problem had to do with proper permits. Tony Richardson, co-owner of the Iced Gems food truck, which was parked nearby, was also warned.

The city is 100 percent in support of street vendors and food trucks in particular, Gillard said, but “also has a responsibility to make sure all of the vendors are properly regulated and also to ensure that existing retail operations are not unfairly affected by their presence.”

Although the main issue was over permits, Gillard’s visit to Iced Gems and Souper Freak was prompted by a retailer’s phone call.

“I reported … them,” said Jean-Hee Pierce, owner of Nina’s, a nearby cafe at Centre and Calvert streets.

Pierce said she called the city about the Souper Freak, Iced Gems and the Chowhound Burger Wagon. Pierce said she went online to measure the distance between her restaurant and the other end of the block, where the trucks usually park, and it came to 280 feet. She said Iced Gems was closer than usual Wednesday.

“The cupcake truck was right in front of us this morning,” she said. “We are selling pretty much the same thing here, sweet goods.”

Pierce said she had gotten used to the Chowhound Burger truck appearing every Thursday, but the more recent arrivals have her worried.

“I thought one truck, maybe, OK,” she said. “Now it seems every day there’s a new truck, and soon I won’t have any business here.”

It is unclear whether food trucks need a street vendor’s license, something Gillard said the city solicitors office had only recently determined. Most of the trucks have paid the city for a mobile food vendor tag, which had allowed them to operate.

“In part, it’s not their fault, because we were still struggling with whether the street vendors board had to bring these folks under compliance,” Gillard said of the “misunderstandings” with the Souper Truck and Iced Gems.

Also unclear is who weighs in on whether the cupcakes sold by Iced Gems are directly in competition with Pierce’s baked goods. Gillard said that such issues should be resolved by the fall.

He expressed sympathy for Smith: “I honestly feel for her because I know the vending process can be a difficult one, and all the agencies involved in the permitting process are not always aware of the other permits that may be needed,” Gillard said.

At the end of the day, Smith was full of praise for the quick reaction from the mayor’s office.

“Mayor Rawlings-Blake has answered my prayers,” Smith wrote.

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.,0,3924158.story