Christopher McRae opened his mobile hot dog cart business, Hound Dogs, on the corner of Union and Main in June 2009. Many people know him as the "Twitter Guy" or as the "best-looking purveyor of hot dogs ... on the corner of Union & Main." Known for his outgoing personality, social media savvy, and trivia question of the day, McRae was an instant hit on Main Street.
With low start-up and overhead costs, McRae had high hopes for Hound Dogs. However, what he calls "restrictive" Health Department codes, limited venues, and a lack of pedestrian foot traffic have left him considering whether or not to hang up his apron.
McRae, who has sampled hot dogs in New York and New Orleans, corn on the cob in Mexico, baked sweet potatoes in rural Japan, and noodle carts in Tokyo, believes that street food is usually the most real, most authentic local food. The cart itself cost him about $2,000. The Health Department permit cost for a 100 percent self-contained mobile unit like McRae's is $210 per year. Additionally, there is a $25 per week charge for a vendor permit from the Center City Commission.
The Health Department estimates that there are fewer than 50 mobile vendors like McRae in Memphis, most of whom only set up for special events. Contrast this to Portland, Oregon, which has licensed 450 carts, half of which are permanently stationed around town.
Paul Gerald, a Flyer contributor who lives in Portland, reports that in the downtown area alone, there are 85 carts open daily, serving every food you can imagine. "Around town, there are now several main pods — two or three downtown with a big lunch crowd, one in North Portland that does a big weekend business, and one in the Southeast that is the go-to place for late-night, like until 2 or 3 a.m.," Gerald says. "Frankly, some of the food is amazing in its quality."
In Memphis, the Health Department will issue mobile permits for parks, pedestrian malls, historic districts, and shopping centers. Mid America Mall on Main between Gayoso and Exchange allows vendors who also receive permits from the Center City Commission. Beale Street's management company, Performa Entertainment, has the authority to permit vendors. Flea markets, zoned as shopping centers by the Land Use Control Board, also allow vendors. Vendors who set up on the street, in vacant lots, or in parking lots around town are illegal.
The Center City Commission is open to more vendors but thus far hasn't found any. "We would love to have more vendors with a different product to give downtowners some variety," says Christine Taylor, office manager for the commission. "We have about four vendors now, and all are selling hot dogs."
Beale Street is not currently allowing food vendors. "We can't have them competing with tenants," says Diane Glasper, Performa Entertainment's leasing agent for Beale Street. John Elkington, the CEO of Performa, says he's all for food vendors, but they haven't been successful with them in the past. "We need the right people who have experience and unique products who can serve them in a clean, healthy, professional, consistent way," he says. "We have to make sure that they don't compete with people who pay rent 365 days a year, but we're all for it."
Not all restaurants mind the competition. John Bragg, the chef/owner of Circa Restaurant on Main Street, thinks food carts are a terrific idea that could add a lot to city life. "As long as they are serving good food — not Mid-South Fair type concessions — and are safe for pedestrians and drivers, I welcome them," he says. Bragg doesn't see them as competition for regular restaurants but thinks it would be difficult for them to prosper since pedestrian traffic is not as heavy in Memphis as it is in other cities.
Deni and Patrick Reilly, owners of the Majestic Grille, also on Main, are big fans of food carts. "We were up in New York City this October, and our first order of business was to check out as many carts as possible," says Deni, who researched the winners of the annual Vendy Awards and checked in with some of her local friends. "We only made it to four carts before we were stuffed," she says.
For McRae, another issue is that the Health Department is very restrictive of what he can sell. "Hot dogs, citrus-based drinks, snow cones, that's it," he says, adding, "I could sell pre-packed sandwiches, à la convenience store or vending machine sandwiches — also known as crap."
The legal term for what is allowed is "non-potentially hazardous foods." This includes hot dogs, some sausages, and frozen items such as popsicles. According to local health codes, McRae could sell a larger variety of food if he were a temporary vendor. Temporary vendors can prepare anything they want (except seafood) as long as it is prepared onsite and meets food safety standards. This is why Memphians see a large variety of foods being sold from carts and mobile units at festivals and fairs. Temporary permits are only good for two to 14 days.
Otho Sawyer, assistant manager of Environmental Sanitation for the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department, explains that inspectors are onsite for special events to make sure that food is prepared safely by temporary vendors. When asked why food can be safe for up to two weeks but not every day, Sawyer simply says it would be too dangerous without constant monitoring. He speculates that cities like Portland "commit more resources" to the Health Department.
"Potentially hazardous foods support the growth of bacteria," Sawyer says. "It's difficult enough to get the restaurants to operate safely. In the long run, the restrictions protect the public." Nicole Lacey, the public information officer for the Health Department, notes, "We didn't create the code; we're just the executors."
The Tennessee state legislature determines the overall health codes for the state, based on FDA food policy. However, local government codes can be stricter, but not less strict, than the state. They are determined by the County Commission in conjunction with the county's health officer.
"The regulations as I understand them are designed to keep out undesirable vendors, whoever that may be," Bragg says. "For example, I wouldn't want a falafel stand out front of my restaurant. Having the right thing in the right place is important, otherwise people are going to have a NIMBY [not in my backyard] attitude."
While Bragg supports vendors who are professional and safe, he feels that there should be a consensus among restaurant owners as to what is and isn't allowed. "What we [restaurant owners] have observed with the festival-style concessions allowed for COGIC conventions downtown is that it has the effect of keeping large crowds out of downtown restaurants."
McRae would like to see the city more open to the idea of food carts all over town, not just on Main Street. "I would love to see foods other than hot dogs," McRae says. "Let people open tamale carts, corn carts, taco carts, salad carts, etc. If there is a vibrant food culture in Memphis, I think we all win."
Memphis Dawgs' Todd Bourne, or "Hot Dog Todd" as he likes to be called, has been selling 100 percent beef Nathan's hot dogs on the corner of Main and Union for about two months. He sets up mostly in the evening and on weekends, but he plans to add Tuesdays and Thursdays soon.
Bourne decided to go into the vending business after visiting a flea market with his wife and one of his kids. They stopped at a cart to buy a center-cut potato, a fried pickle, a corn dog, and three drinks. "Our total came to $28. I looked at the long line behind me, then looked at my wife and said, 'I'm in the wrong business.'"
Bourne is thrilled with the way business is going. On a recent Saturday when the Tigers were playing, Bourne sold at least 100 of his $5 combos (hot dog, chips, and a drink). "I'm real reasonable," he says. "It's a bargain, and you get to eat outside!"
When asked why he chose to sell hot dogs, Bourne responds, "The Health Department gave me two choices: hot dogs or popcorn." He notes that he can't sell chili, cheese, hamburgers, slaw, or mayo but that he does have some really good toppings, including his own "world-famous barbecue sauce." He says it's getting popular quick.
"It's hard to go wrong with good quality. The business has just taken off. I'm serving smiles every day," he says.