Food Truck Operators in Oklahoma City say they Face Scrutiny, Rules that put their Businesses at Risk

Crews Morris (left) and Jon Grupe prepare tacos and burritos at the Big Truck Tacos mobile stand in front of the Oklahoma County Courthouse in downtown Oklahoma City, OK, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. By Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman

By STEVE LACKMEYER | NewsOK.com

Crews Morris (left) and Jon Grupe prepare tacos and burritos at the Big Truck Tacos mobile stand in front of the Oklahoma County Courthouse in downtown Oklahoma City, OK, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. By Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman

When Big Truck Tacos saw one of its two trucks shut down last month at an outdoor food market in MidTown, it was just the first of three visits in 24 hours by health inspectors.

Such frequency is nothing new to Cally Johnson, who as co-owner of Big Truck Tacos, has seen firsthand how much more scrutiny is given mobile food operations compared to established restaurants.

Indeed, records show the Oklahoma City-County Health Department conducts “sweeps” of food trucks twice a year while no such efforts are staged against the city’s various restaurant corridors. Such scrutiny is now being challenged by operators who say the odds are stacked against them by city and state statutes.

“We run our trucks all the time, every week, and if we were not doing it right, we would not have any business,” Johnson said. “People would put it on Facebook, on Twitter, because that’s how we roll. I don’t even know any rationale for this attention.”

Health department officials respond the laws might not be perfect, but they were written with the idea that food trucks inherently pose more of a risk than established restaurants. They also note Oklahoma City contracts with the agency to inspect food trucks anytime they appear at a special event — which was the case when the H&8th outdoor market was raided Aug. 26.

Phil Maytubby, public health protection chief for the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, said Big Truck Tacos and two other vendors were subjected to a surprise inspection because H&8th was deemed a special event.

Big Truck Tacos had both of its trucks inspected the next day because one was shut down for having the wrong permit at H&8th, and inspectors did not know which truck had returned to service.

“When you’re looking through these records, you’ll see some that have been inspected 15 times — because they’re involved in a special event,” Maytubby said.

Mike Bailey, chief inspector at the health department, said the trucks are seen as a higher risk because they have small kitchens and they don’t have the same resources as restaurants to maintain clean operations. He admits, however, that the agency doesn’t receive many complaints from the public about food trucks.

Records obtained by The Oklahoman show that of more than 230 complaints received by the Health Department since Jan. 1, only two were against mobile food operators. And while Big Truck Tacos saw all of its food from the truck thrown out and the market closed on Aug. 26, other restaurants with track records of Dozens of complaints over the years have seen far less scrutiny.

In one case, Pizza Town at 430 W Main has seen more than 82 violations, 12 listed as a direct cause of foodborne illnesses, since 2004. Bailey admits the business hasn’t been subjected to three visits in 24 hours as was Big Truck Tacos, but it is under the threat of being placed on state enforcement as complaints and violations have continued to be recorded.

The health department took no action when it received a complaint April 20 alleging bottles of urine were being kept in a storage room above the Pizza Town dining room. Bailey said the owner, E.J. Chamhidray, would not allow the inspectors access, claiming the room was a living quarters and not part of the restaurant.

Chamhidray said this week he had no knowledge of the complaint.

“The hazmat team was called out, and they got it out,” Bailey said. “He was apparently letting transients live upstairs.”

Records show no complaints filed this year against Big Truck Tacos.

Bailey said the department’s sweeps of food trucks may be the reason so few complaints are filed. He added violations are found on the sweeps, and that when the inspectors continued their visits to trucks on the southside they cited 10 mobile food operators.

Johnson is hoping the city and the health department will work with food truck operators to create procedures that promote and do not discourage mobile food operations.

“Work with us and get to know us so you can write an effective law,” Johnson said. “We’re not trying to kill people; trust us — that would be bad for our business. I think instead of making a law for a law’s sake, why not create a law and boundaries that serve the common good?”