New Mobile Food Rules Ensnare Man Who Pushed for Changes

Nine of the trucks in Tom Ramsey's 53-vehicle fleet have gone without required permits since November, a month after the City Council OK'd changes to the city's mobile food vending ordinance.


Nine of the trucks in Tom Ramsey's 53-vehicle fleet have gone without required permits since November, a month after the City Council OK'd changes to the city's mobile food vending ordinance.

In 2009 Tom Ramsey pressed the City of Austin to add teeth to the city’s mobile food vending ordinance.

Ramsey might have seemed an unlikely advocate; he owns a Pflugerville-based fleet of food trucks, which he leases to independent operators through his Snappy Snacks business. But as some in the booming food trailer business — there are now more than 1,300 food trucks in Austin — questioned his motives, Ramsey said the city needed tougher rules such as those found in other Texas cities to address health, safety and environmental concerns. In October, after an often-rocky 16-month review, the City Council approved a half dozen changes.

But now Ramsey says the teeth he sought have come back to bite him — since November, nine of his 53 vehicles either have not passed or would be unable to pass a city Fire Department inspection mandated by the new mobile food vending requirements. Passing is a requisite for getting an Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department permit, which vendors need to do business.

The irony is not lost on Ramsey.

“I’m not crying. I’m extremely disappointed in how the city departments are handling this,” he said.

Ramsey claims that city officials are singling him out for scrutiny and that the Fire Department was ill-prepared because it did not develop criteria for what it would review until after it began the inspections. Inability to pass inspection threatens the livelihoods of the small-business owners who lease his trucks, Ramsey said.

Assistant Fire Chief Richard Davis disputes that city officials are treating Ramsey differently or that the Fire Department wasn’t ready for the inspections.

“We’re not in the business of putting people out of business,” Davis said. “We’re in the business of helping vendors comply with safety standards and be in compliance. The main thing is to ensure that everything is equitable across the board.”

Paul Saldaña, a consultant who is representing Ramsey, said the fleet owner’s troubles getting permits have “been a nightmare, to say the least.”

The Fire Department inspects mobile food vending vehicles in a number of areas, including use of gas tanks and cooking and heating appliances. Problems with Ramsey’s vehicles appear to stem from the Fire Department’s inability to verify that gas-fired appliances were tested by a laboratory recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Third-party certification is a requirement of the inspection. Davis said vendors must show proof that the components are laboratory-listed and meet safety standards.

According to Fire Department figures provided by Davis, 134 mobile vendors received fire inspection permits during the period from October to December; 14 were denied. Davis said most who were denied permits were not in compliance with safety standards for operation, placement and/or operation of liquid petroleum gas cylinders.

Among Ramsey’s complaints in 2009, he contended that illegitimate vendors were selling food prepared from home — against city regulations — not paying sales taxes, illegally dumping grease and operating makeshift trucks with gas tanks mounted dangerously on the vehicles. The latter was the impetus for the provision mandating the Fire Department inspections.

Davis said the Fire Department has been working closely with Ramsey, discussions that recently produced good news for him — the department verified that trucks made by one of Ramsey’s two manufacturers were tested by a laboratory recognized by OSHA.

But Ramsey said the Fire Department verified certification only after he put officials in contact with the manufacturer, which provided copies of design blueprints of heating appliances, a process he said took weeks. Saldaña suggested that at least early on, Fire Department officials were focused on looking for certification from labs generally accepted in Texas, such as Underwriters Laboratories. Ramsey’s trucks were manufactured in California.

About half of Ramsey’s fleet — including the nine trucks that don’t have Fire Department permits — are made by another manufacturer. Davis said the Fire Department has been unable to verify that the heating appliances on those trucks were inspected by a certified laboratory.

Ramsey said he’s tried since November to get a permit for one of the nine trucks but has been rejected at least four times. Eight other trucks have expired operating permits. Because they are made by the same manufacturer, Ramsey said, he had not taken them in for the fire department inspections. About 25 other vehicles made by the same manufacturer will soon have their permits expire, he said.