Mayor Gunter Weighs in on the Latest Food Truck Controversy
SAN ANGELO, TX — Mayor Brenda Gunter bristles when asked about the food truck controversy. Her campaign promise was to “Cut the Red Tape” and make San Angelo more business-friendly. The issue of what to do with food trucks has moved front and center during her first term, and the issue has pitted the staff at the City of San Angelo against the largest food truck operator in the city, Tim Condon and his successful Lonestar Cheeseburger.
Until now, Gunter has sat on the sidelines hoping the City can work it out without her direct involvement. Gunter is in a difficult position. In addition to Condon’s food truck permanently parked at the busy intersection of S. Abe. St. and W. Beauregard Ave. downtown, he also owns The Angry Cactus, an upscale restaurant at the end of the heart of the downtown restoration district known as “Block One.”
The Angry Cactus, with a giant smiling face across the cartoonish statue of a bright green cactus, sits atop the restaurant’s foyer, and stares east, its eyes glaring at what is about a block away, almost directly at Gunter’s Miss Hattie’s Restaurant on Concho Avenue.
To the casual observer, you’d recognize the two establishments, and their respective proprietors, as competitors while the big green cactus acts as a metaphor of a conflict Gunter doesn’t want or seek.
The controversy over food trucks has been ongoing for about a year as the City staff enhanced its oversight of the burgeoning business genre in response to modifications made on October 15, 2015 to the Texas Food Establishment Rules, or TFER (pronounced “Tee-Fer”).
Condon’s Lonestar Cheeseburger existed about five years prior to the TFER modifications by the Texas Legislature, so for Condon, he’s correct when he complains that the rules have shifted.
Inside the 2015 TFER is rule §228.221 that governs mobile food establishments by which Condon’s cheeseburger trailer is regulated. Proving mobility and self-sufficiency are the primary requirements that pit Condon’s business operations against City authorities.
“The regulatory authority prohibits alteration, removal, attachments, additions, placement or change in, under, or upon the Mobile Food Unit that would prevent or otherwise reduce ready mobility,” the TFER demands. And, “A regulatory authority may require a Mobile Food Unit to come, on an annual basis or as often as required, to a location designated by the regulatory authority as proof that the Mobile Food Unit is readily moveable.”
At first, the City required Condon to tow his trailer around the block. The spectacle of what is otherwise a semi-permanent trailer that almost rivals the size of a small mobile home to be towed around the block with an undersized Ram 1500 pickup truck was broadcasted live on Facebook. The video show was the top Facebook post in Texas for about a half day as folks from all over the state glimpsed at what was surely a drastic overreach by the regulators at the City of San Angelo, the same government body to where Mayor Gunter was elected with 65 percent of the vote on the promise to “Cut the Red Tape.”
Condon took a stab at Gunter that day, too. After the trip around the block, his team of 15 employees quickly restored business operations at the trailer and the special that day was the “Red Tape Burger.” For an extra dollar, Condon would cut the burger in half for you. It was among the best days for sales ever for Lonestar Cheeseburger.
Gunter was not amused. It had nothing to do with her opinion of Condon’s enterprise or the perceived competition between their respective restaurants. And Gunter certainly sympathized with Condon’s plight. She too is a business owner, she said. She has to deal with similar regulatory issues as well.
“I think Tim’s food trailer there gives the space a special character that wouldn’t be there if Tim didn’t risk everything to make Lonestar Cheeseburger work,” she said. "It makes that corner interesting.” The food trailer sits underneath the overhead carport where gas pumps once were installed, next to the Eskimo Hut convenience store.
Condon also admits the friendliness of the mayor and discounts the public’s perception that the two are in direct competition.
“She dines at the Angry Cactus from time to time,” Condon said.
Gunter said the business model for food trucks is a good one for San Angelo’s economy. She wants to encourage entrepreneurial endeavors in this area. But, she admitted, as more regulations are needed and enacted, the barrier to entry may discourage part-time enterprises. It happens in all new industries, she said.
Condon admitted that the idea of a food truck traveling around town like an ice cream truck is not a viable business model. “You have to be almost stationary,” he said. He cited examples of the owners the top food truck businesses in San Angelo who get it. None of them move.
People have to expect you’ll be at the same place all the time to attract repeat business, the holy grail of restaurants in general, Condon said.
Condon’s business model is one where he smartly uses the food truck motif to set the atmosphere and the trendy experience for the diner but in reality operates like a brick and mortar business, Gunter said.
“How do you accommodate that?” she wondered aloud.
On the other hand, a brick and mortar restaurant may resent a food truck moving into an area requiring less capital to establish, and operate with lower expenses.
John Stossel, the libertarian TV show host, created a segment on his television show bemoaning how brick and mortar restaurant businesses lobby for the use of the regulatory power of government to shut down food truck competition.
For the City, Gunter said she wants the rules to be applied universally for everyone with a special carve-out to allow entrepreneurial experimentation using food trucks.
“But we cannot create special City ordinances just for Tim Condon,” she said.
City Attorney Theresa James consults with City staff in the Health Department and the Fire Marshal’s office on how to achieve that goal. Echoing Gunter’s view, she said, “My concern is consistency. We have to apply the same rules in the same way to everyone.”
At the same time, James said she believes the City has provided that special carve-out that allows food trucks to operate successfully within the city limits. A new ordinance was passed last month that now allows food trucks to operate where they haven’t before, such as in residential-zoned areas, at churches, and in the public right-of-way.
To protect brick and mortar restaurants, the new ordinance prohibits food trucks from setting up within 100 feet of an established eatery.
But the new ordinance isn’t where the sticking point is between the City and Condon, James said. The issue is proving self-sufficiency as mandated in the TFER.
The latest is that the City is requiring Condon to demonstrate his trailer has a generator capable of powering the commercial-grade kitchen inside. Condon said the requirement is ridiculous and will cost him a fortune.
A generator requirement is not specifically specified in the TFER but it does state:
“The mobile unit must be totally operable at time of inspection, including but not limited to handwash/warewash facilities, refrigeration and wastewater disposal.”
Apparently, when Condon towed the food trailer to City Hall for this year’s inspection at the end of January, he wasn’t required to hook up a generator, though Condon said he had a generator on location at the ready.
The City said it has extended its timeline for Condon’s trailer inspection to accommodate him. Monday at 9 a.m. the City Health Inspectors will come to the Lonestar Cheeseburger location to see if Condon can operate his trailer on a generator, not plugged into the Eskimo Hut’s electrical feed there.
Condon argued the City has fallen down a slippery slope. For 2018, he was required to tow his trailer around the block. For 2019, he had to tow it further to City Hall. And now, he’s required to demonstrate his trailer is capable of operating off a generator.
“Where does it end?” he asked.
James said the City is making concessions. “Just by allowing food truck businesses to operate next to their commissary is unique in the state of Texas,” she said. A commissary is a static location from where a food truck is supplied. In Condon’s case, the Eskimo Hut is his commissary.
“We have loosened the rules to allow this concept to exist,” James argued.
Gunter is monitoring the situation but wants to support the City staff as they apply what the council directed. Her primary concern is fairness—don’t make ordinances or policies just to accommodate one business or one individual.
Condon’s competitive position doesn’t concern Gunter, either.
“My involvement with downtown for over two decades has been about attracting more businesses and putting more historic buildings back into use,” she said.
A successful downtown is about providing more and more options for consumers, Gunter explained. Condon’s businesses do that.
As for the big, green Angry Cactus, Gunter said she prefers that to what was there before.
“I am thrilled that building is now in use. Before Condon’s Angry Cactus, that was the ugliest corner in downtown, and was for decades,” she said.
James said while some in the City staff bemoan Tim Condon’s antics, many are actually cheering him on.
Conflict is always present when businesses are innovating and making San Angelo a thriving community, she said.
“Conflict is part of the natural process of living together. We’re going to disagree. It’s a healthy thing if we deal with it appropriately,” said James.