When the Beaumont City Council approved a tough new ordinance in 2009 to regulate taco trucks, barbecue stands on wheels and other mobile food vendors, it was responding to complaints about food handling and public safety from citizens, including some restaurant operators concerned when the trucks set up shop near their eateries – and because these mobile units did not bear the high overhead costs associated with building and health code compliance.
The new ordinance resulted in the 13 operators who had been licensed at the end of 2008 essentially being put out of business because they could only be permitted for a period of time not to exceed 14 days. In addition, they could only get such a permit four times per calendar year with a 30-day time period between each consecutive permit issuance. It’s hard to sustain a retail food business under those restrictions, and taco trucks disappeared from Beaumont.
In early 2012, a new mobile food trailer began appearing at various locations in the West End. A sign identified the white trailer as Bánh Mon Renegade Street Food, complete with a painting of Elvis Presley on the side. The advertised bill of fare centered around the Bánh Mon, described as a hybrid version of the Vietnamese/French sandwich Bánh Mi – created by Chef Monica Cobb, who was in the trailer cranking out the product, which included variations such as Lemongrass Chicken, Blackstrap Pork Loin and Sweet Chili Gulf Shrimp Bành Mons for between $7.50 and $9.75 a pop.
That is a little pricey by usual Texas taco truck standards but representative of the gourmet food truck movement popular in Houston, Austin and Los Angeles and celebrated in the Cooking Channel show Eat Street. We regularly patronize these trucks on visits to the aforementioned cities where they are flourishing, but they were essentially banned in Beaumont.
The logical question that presented itself was how Monica Cobb and her Bánh Mon trailer were operating under the law. The answer proved elusive at first, with Cobb mightily resisting efforts to get to the bottom of the issue.
Cobb was apparently at the Health Department when The Examiner called to inquire about the mobile food ordinance. The next day she called the newspaper with a blistering message where she claimed she was somehow being “stalked.”
“I was at the Health Department whenever the person from The Examiner called; I was sitting right there and heard the conversation,” she said, then made reference to the reporter who had in fact come to the abandoned gas station where she had stationed her trailer some weeks before.
“He’s been coming to our different locations and taking photos, making complaints and if it continues, you’ll just have to speak to my attorney,” she fumed. “I am not in the mood to deal with this. I am a small business owner and this man has no rights. For all I know, he could be some sort of terrorist.”
Not a terrorist but a legitimate reporter who was still chagrined at Cobb’s description.
“It’s an older man and he has identified himself; I was at the Health Department when he called trying to get me in trouble, and it’s ridiculous. I mean, he could be lying and saying he’s with The Examiner but I promise you if there’s someone that’s with your newspaper and is trying to write a story on me and they have no idea what they are talking about, there could be grounds for all kinds of trouble, and I am fed up with trying to be a small business owner and people trying to take me down wherever I come and wherever I go,” she continued.
In closing, she spelled out the purpose of her call: “Fair warning – there had better not be a story written about me,” said an obviously angry Cobb.
The next day she called Fox4 News, who did a story where she launched what she hoped would be a preemptive strike against any story The Examiner might publish.
“There was a little bit of controversy where we had some people following us that wouldn’t come up to the trailer,” Cobb told Fox4. “Snapping photos of us and just kind of making us nervous and spreading rumors that we weren’t legal, that we’re not doing the proper protocol, when actually we’re doing everything legal.”
Perhaps what made Cobb nervous was the knowledge she was relying on an interesting interpretation of the food ordinance to obtain her multiple permits despite language that appeared to prohibit such actions.
The ordinance limits the frequency with which permits can be issued but delineates one exception: “There is no limit on the number of times that a permit may be issued for temporary food events operating in connection with a festival involving organized public assembly for entertainment purposes,” reads Section 229.171. But it is the following sentence in the ordinance that opened the door for the Cobb exception.
“A festival is defined, for the purposes of this policy, as a public celebration, entertainment or series of performances of a certain kind, often held periodically,” the ordinance reads.
If you have visited the Bánh Mon trailer at its various stops around the West End, you may have noticed John Cobb – husband of Monica – sitting in a chair strumming on his guitar. Incredibly, Cobb has asserted – and the Health Department apparently agrees – that a guy playing a guitar is the same thing as “a festival involving organized public assembly for entertainment purposes.”
Asked how she can call her husband and his guitar a festival, Cobb fires back, “Because he’s good. He’s a professional; it is live entertainment and that is exactly what the law states: In order to sell simple food, you need live entertainment to be in a spot consecutively.”
That portion of the ordinance makes no reference to “simple food,” and the entertainment loophole is something that was not made available to the mostly ethnic taco truck operators put out of business in 2009 when they showed up in tears at City Hall with daughters in tow to translate for them.
John Cobb volunteered an even more expansive definition of entertainment in the ordinance, prefacing his remarks by commenting he was the son of a federal judge. “I don’t even have to play the guitar,” said Cobb. “I could do a dance, mime or just tell jokes.”
A high-ranking city official reacted with dismay when told of these comments.
“That was clearly not the intention of City Council; I call it a loophole,” said the official. “The ordinance section that talks about entertainment was poorly written” and appears to open the door for multiple interpretations.
City Councilmember W.L. Pate said he had heard good things about Cobb’s sandwiches but expressed surprise that a guy playing guitar somehow constitutes a festival.
“When I think of festivals, I think of the Neches River Festival; I think of the Cinco de Mayo festival that we have over at the park in the Avenues,” said Pate. “I’m not quite sure how loosely we can stretch the festival definition, but this is something that’s going to send me back to our legal minds at the city and ask to make sure everybody’s playing by the rules.”
James Shannon can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 249, or by e-mail at james [at] beaumontbusinessjournal [dot] com.