Smyrna puts heat on local food trucks
November 21, 2016
By Ian Gronau
SMYRNA — Clint Johnson’s wife calls him the Woolly Mammoth because his “old school, authentic” style of barbecuing on the roadside is going extinct.
Like many endangered species, Mr. Johnson laments habitat degradation as the cause, but this kind is of an official nature.
“Traditional Southern rib joints that used to be on the side of the gas stations or out in back of the bar are all extinct because of rules and regulations,” he said.
Mr. Johnson is the owner of Oh’ Phoebe’s BBQ & Down Home Deli in Smyrna. It specializes in barbecued and smoked ribs, chicken, pork, sausage and other savory fare.
In addition to the restaurant location on Main Street he operates a food truck parked in the Advance Auto Parts lot on Route 13, Wednesdays through Sundays.
Although feeling settled in Smyrna — his business’s home for the past five years — a recently approved ordinance has him wondering just how comfortable he should get.
Although the new ordinance’s terms seem fairly innocuous to his current business, new regulations hitting the books remind him of “run-ins” he had with Middletown officials.
“At first it was pretty good in Middletown,” he said. “There was no ordinance as long as you had the state license and the town license. You could pretty much go where you wanted to, provided that you had the permission of the land owner.
“One of my competitors thought maybe that I was doing better than him and he didn’t want me anywhere nearby. And maybe he thought that I would open up the floodgates for all these food trucks to come in and put the brick and mortar people out of business — as if we were going to post up right in front of their store.”
As a result, Middletown approved a new ordinance that would require him to plead his case to the zoning board for a $125 fee and then await approval, he said.
After that, he’d have to be heard by the city council, which can often take 30 to 60 days.
“Before, I could just move from place to place the next day as long as I keep my license up and running,” he said. “Because, if I am going to plan out my summer, by the time I get final permission to move around to the different locations, the summer would be gone. That’s why I got out of there.”
After moving into his storefront location in Smyrna he began running into new issues.
“I had trouble with my restaurant smoking up the town, the people up on Main Street in town really didn’t care for that,” he said. “But there is no state rule about open air smoking in Delaware.”
After meeting with the town manager and chief of police, Mr. Johnson decided that it might be better for everyone if he moved his meat smoking operation in his food truck out to Route 13 while keeping his restaurant functioning in town.
“It was kind of a courtesy thing, and it was agreed that if I moved out there I wasn’t going to be bothered anymore,” he said.
The new ordinance, approved on Oct. 14, establishes requirements for mobile food vendors and specifies that mobile food vendors must have at least $100,000 worth of general liability insurance, trash receptacles, can have limited dining areas and are not permitted within 50 feet of restaurants.
It also outlines details surrounding the participation of mobile food vendors in public events and specifies the licensing procedures. It spells out restrictions for mobile food vendors located on public and private property and notes penalties for violation of the ordinance between $150 and $500.
It also explains that mobile food vendors who obtain a license as a mobile food vendor are not required to get a business license.
Smyrna Town Manager David Hugg says the impetus behind the ordinance is to pro-actively outline a policy before an urgent need for one arises.
“Food trucks are obviously something of a trend that’s growing rapidly and we’ve not really had a problem, he said. “But we wanted to get ahead of the curve a bit.
“We’ve been seeing food trucks on a regular basis out at the Blue Earl brewery. They don’t create any issue out there — they’re actually a great addition — but they’re not necessarily out there with a fully legal status. It’s kind of questionable.”
Mr. Johnson feels that although sometimes good intentioned, added regulations have a way of stifling businesses like his.
“I started out in Philly with nothing but a card table and shishkabobs,” he said. “Then I went to a small grill, then the back of my Volvo, then the back of my van and I got a smoker.
“I left Philadelphia because they were always trying to shut everyone down, and it would take too long to get set back up again.
“I’ve worked in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware. So far, Smyrna and Dover pretty much allowed me to go where I wanted as long as I had permission, which has been good.”
Mr. Hugg says the new ordinance won’t exclude anyone who is taking the food truck business seriously and that it’s a good way to monitor commerce taking place in the city limits.
“I want to recognize that it is another commercial activity that will be taking place in town,” he said. “Most of the provisions that are in there, if you’re a legitimate food truck, you already have.
“The day of the guy with a little cart or wagon and some hot dogs is pretty much over. These guys who are in the actual food truck business have pretty expensive rigs — it’s not something you just put together in an afternoon. The retail arena is changing rapidly and we’re trying to be proactive.”
For now, Mr. Johnson is unconcerned: By his reckoning he operates well within all the posted requirements, but he resents duplicated regulatory efforts by the city and state. For instance, he isn’t happy about obtaining a license with the municipality when he already carries one from the state.
“It kind of feels like, food trucks are coming in and they’re thinking: ‘why not make a buck off them?’” he said. “The state issues licenses, why do they have to also?”
Mr. Johnson also thinks the goods and services food trucks like his offer are increasingly in demand, which is more reason to embrace them rather than “roll out red tape.”
“We’re hot. We’re the new trend,” he said. “A lot of people are taking business and their livelihoods into their own hands. We’re breaking out of the stereotypical mass produced food. We’re doing things our way, the traditional way.
“I do things just like you would in the back yard. It’s trend for people who know good food. After 30 or 40 years of seeing McDonald’s everywhere, people are really getting tired of it.
“Now, to see something like what I have on my grill? It’s a breath of fresh air. This chicken has bones.”
Despite the wind at his back, he knows that regulations, should they become too onerous, could chase him out of town as quickly as they have in the past — sending him the way of the Woolly Mammoth.
“I wish I could branch out a bit, but I am treading lightly,” he said. “You never know when you might pull up somewhere and suddenly you wont be welcome. It’s happened to me several times now.