Officials with the city of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City/County Health Department and the ABLE Commission are defending their raid on an inaugural nighttime food market against critics who say the enforcement was selective and heavy-handed.
The raid started about 8:30 p.m. Friday, just 30 minutes after the market, dubbed “H&8th,” started up in the parking lot of Elemental Coffee, 815 N Hudson.
A large crowd that included City Manager Jim Couch was surprised to see a force of inspectors, ABLE agents, police, fire and code enforcement officers descend on an event that consisted of three food trucks, a beer trailer, the coffee shop and nearby Ludivine Restaurant.
Organizers admit they held the market despite being rejected for an outdoor event permit. Other violations are in dispute.
One food truck, owned by Big Truck Tacos, was shut down because it didn't have the right license posted; another, the Munch Box, was shut down because inspectors said it had no working electricity or refrigeration, and a cart run by Hugo's was shut down because it lacked proper screening. Both the Munchbox and Big Truck Tacos dispute the reasons used to shut them down.
Ludivine, meanwhile, was cited for having a box of wine outside the restaurant's hallway.
‘This was a shakedown'
“There were things done wrong (by event organizers),” Ludivine owner Jonathan Stranger said. “But the show of force was insane … this was a shakedown.”
Records show the sweep on the market involved 27 people; 16 inspectors with the Oklahoma City/County Health Department, three agents with the ABLE Commission, two Oklahoma City licensing inspectors, two Oklahoma City electrical inspectors, two Oklahoma City code inspectors, an Oklahoma City police officer and an inspector with the Oklahoma City Fire
Vicki Monks, health department spokeswoman, said no coordination took place between her agency, ABLE and the Oklahoma City inspectors, and the enforcement action taken by her agency's inspectors was a last-minute decision spurred by coverage of H&8th in The Oklahoman on Friday.
She said the 16 health inspectors were traveling together so that they could “spread out” and inspect food trucks in south Oklahoma City after stopping at the market.
Monks said inspectors' only concern was ensuring food being served to customers was safe.
John Maisch, legal counsel for ABLE, said his agents were only checking to ensure proper licensing and procedures were being followed by Ludivine.
H&8th was organized by Stranger, Elemental Coffee owner Laura Massenat and J.D. Merryweather, a co-owner of COOP Ale Works, with the intention of promoting the emerging MidTown neighborhood.
Visitor speaks out
Brian Bates, who visited the market with his wife, noted people had started gathering about an hour before it was set to begin.
“A dozen or so people were able to get food from Big Truck and the other vendors when several city vehicles pulled up and an unbelievable number of city/county employees descended upon the event,” Bates said. “Some appeared to be ABLE employees as they were armed. They moved straight in on the trucks and shut them down literally immediately — as if they knew in advance what they would find and the goal was to stop the event as soon as possible.”
Another customer, Josiah Daniel, arrived about 8 p.m. with his wife and two children and saw ABLE agents talking to Laura Massenat, owner of Elemental Coffee, and Kyle Fleishfresser, Ludivine's bar manager, by the COOP Ale trailer at the market. He said the health inspectors arrived shortly afterward in what he called a “SWAT Team” descent on the market. Daniel said he tried to talk to about 10 of the health inspectors as they gathered near a “Keep it Local” table at the market.
“I expressed my frustration with the negative perception their mass presence was causing a new, exciting community event,” Daniel said. “They were definitely oblivious to what the event actually was.”
Bates, meanwhile, questioned why authorities couldn't have approached organizers before the event began.
“I found the sheer number of authorities and their overall demeanor to be adversarial and counterproductive,” Bates said. “You don't send two dozen inspectors to converge onto a handful of high-profile food trucks with any other goal than to shut them down and intimidate them. The entire ordeal seemed to be in sharp contrast to city leaders public stance of progress, cooperation with local businesses and forward thinking.”
Bad decision admitted
Event organizers, meanwhile, acknowledge they made one bad decision. Massenat admits that her application for an outdoor event/noise permit was denied the morning of the event because the property doesn't have commercial C-4 zoning (the area is a mix of commercial, industrial and office use). The lack of that permit, however, was not cited in the market's closing.
Records obtained by The Oklahoman, show that Ludivine and Big Truck Tacos applied for other required licenses and discussed their events with the health department and ABLE in advance of the event.
Stranger, owner of Ludivine, said he discussed plans for the market with ABLE Lt. Brent Fairchild three days before the market and was told he had obtained all the appropriate permits and taken all the right steps for serving alcohol at the event.
Jim Hughes, assistant director at ABLE, said the agency contacted Oklahoma City Police on joining them on their surprise inspection after a complaint was filed with his agency. Hughes said that complaint consisted of an agent seeing a story about the event printed in The Oklahoman that same morning.
“We call it a complaint in our system when an agent sees a news story, Facebook, and see information about a catered event,” Hughes said. “When they read it, they were not sure the caterer had a mixed-beverage license.”
Records show that Ludivine received a mixed-beverage license for the event in the meeting Stranger had with Fairchild.
Both Hughes and Dr. Gary Cox, director at the health department, said their agencies did not have time to contact the event organizers in advance. Records obtained by The Oklahoman show that Oklahoma City code inspectors working with the health department were discussing the story via email at 9 a.m. Friday.
Hughes said a surprise visit is the only way to ensure liquor sales are being handled properly and that he doesn't have the manpower to communicate in advance.
Action not preplanned
Hughes and Cox deny their agencies coordinated their response.
“We didn't preplan this thing,” Cox said. “We didn't get a group of folks and say let's converge on 8th and Hudson. It happened independently. We were going to do our inspections and that was it.”
Cox said Friday night was an “unfortunate coming together of events” in which his inspectors did not try to intimidate the vendors or crowd by showing up in a force of 16.
“Could we have done it differently?” Cox asked. “Monday morning quarterbacking, knowing there are only four vendors down there, we probably could have only sent a couple of inspectors. But they were on their way to south Oklahoma City and they wanted to arrive at the same time. Sometimes perception can be reality. What happened here was a lack of communication between the event organizers and the health department. Communication can go both ways.”
Representatives of ABLE and the city say they don't believe their agencies did anything wrong or could have handled themselves differently. Cox, however, said his agency is using the controversy as a means to see whether improvements can be made in responding to special events and educating food truck operators.