Jackson, MS: Food Vendors Wary of City Involvement

Vendor chef Kazzy Ferdinand prepares chicken wings, Polish sausage and cheese grits Wednesday near Club Royal along Wood Street in Jackson. / Greg Jenson/The Clarion-Ledger

by Bill Campbell | Clarion Ledger

Vendor chef Kazzy Ferdinand prepares chicken wings, Polish sausage and cheese grits Wednesday near Club Royal along Wood Street in Jackson. / Greg Jenson/The Clarion-Ledger

In midtown Jackson, where there’s smoke, there might be Chef Ferdinand.

Smoke is the calling card of one of several grassroots mobile vending outfits operating long before the City Council began to consider joining cities across the nation enjoying appetizing delights from trendy trucks and carts rolling around town.

Councilman Quentin Whitwell of Ward 1 first proposed the concept, championing entrepreneurs who want to serve food from such trucks.

Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes likes the concept, too, giving the proposed ordinance stronger legs because Whitwell and Stokes represent very different demographic districts.

But in Stokes’ ward, it’s hardly a revolution. Mobile food vendors have been operating in the heart of Jackson since, as far as anyone can recall, wheels first started turning in the city.

Some, like Chef Kazzy Ferdinand, provide everything proposed by Whitwell’s revolution, short of a festive, pastel-colored truck.

Ferdinand, who has multiple degrees in culinary arts from Hinds Community College, can be found somewhere around town most nights and weekend afternoons, usually with long-time cohort Roy Lee Graves.

Last Wednesday night, he and Graves were outside Club Royal on Wood Street with his double-barrel smoker on a trailer behind his pickup.

They set up a condiments table, loaded his grills with charcoal and cherry oak wood, and began placing Polish sausages, chicken wings, a large pan of crawfish-and-cheddar cheese grits and … The list goes on, all the way to complimentary crab salad – a little lagniappe to show his customer appreciation.

“This will be a more adult crowd,” Ferdinand said as he went over his menu, “so I won’t serve pork chops. The younger crowd will eat a lot of pork chops, but when people get into their 30s and 40s, they’re a little more conscious about their diet.”

By 9:30 p.m., Ferdinand’s stand, which bears no signage or advertising, was attracting customers not only by smoke signal but also aroma.

Willie Williams, heading home after a long day’s work, rolled down the window of his pickup and asked, “Whatcha got?”

He ordered two Polish sausage dogs, “Chi-style,” loaded with onions, bell pepper and mayo for $5.

While he waited, Ferdinand offered him free samples of cheese grits and crab salad.

“You don’t get this every day,” Williams said.

Williams said he wasn’t aware of Chef Ferdinand before but will be on the lookout in the future.

Ferdinand gave Williams a business card, saying he can call him any time to find out where he will be serving that night. It’s his only advertisement.

As the night grew on, customers drifted over from Club Royal, which does not serve food.

Ferdinand works in partnership with club owners, and their businesses complement one another.

“I wouldn’t go anywhere I’m not welcome,” Ferdinand said. “I’ll call them or they’ll call me, and together, we both do better business.”

Ferdinand is nervous about the city’s proposed ordinance, though.

He said the city has been unresponsive to his attempts to obtain permits, but he carries a notebook of paperwork establishing his credibility and assurances that he meets health-code standards.

City Deputy Zoning Director Bernard Hopkins said unlicensed vendors are illegal and should be reported.

A police car slowly rolled by, flashed a spotlight on Ferdinand’s grill, then kept rolling last Wednesday night.

“Sometimes, like at Lake Hico, they’ll come talk to us, sometimes eat,” Ferdinand said. “We’re not breaking any laws. We’re just trying to make a living.”

Ferdinand, however, received a five-year federal prison sentence for drug involvement in 1993. That is a strike Ferdinand has battled ever since.

“He got in trouble early in life,” said Stokes, who supports the work done by Ferdinand and a handful of other mobile vendors in his ward.

“He went to junior college, got certified as a chef. He got a patent on something he serves. This man might be a felon, but he’s legitimate now.

“He has worked at some of the hotels. He’s a family man, with two daughters and one son. He’s an asset to his community.”

Stokes wants the food truck ordinance to pass but to do no harm to existing vendors.

Whitwell agreed, saying any of several measures, including a grandfather clause, might be used to accommodate existing food providers.

“These people are already established in the black community, and I want to make sure we don’t put them out of business by establishing the ordinance we’re trying to create,” Stokes said. “They’re clean. They treat people right. It’s just routine in the black community.”