Four times over the past year, Smash Hit hot dog cart vendor Donnie Rollins has gone through the same routine with Capt. Michael Linton of the Duke University Police Department. First, Rollins said, he would see a white Chevy roll up to his regular spot near the FedEx/ Kinko's on Ninth Street, usually between noon and 2 p.m. Then Linton, who was always in uniform, would approach Rollins and verbally warn him that he was violating his food truck permit, and then ask to see it. And Rollins would hope not to see Linton again, astounded that the moving clause of the mobile food ordinance was being enforced.
The Durham Code of Ordinances, Chapter 54, Section 109, governs mobile food carts in the public right-of-way. Among its clauses is one that requires mobile food vendors to move 60 feet every 15 minutes. Though the clause is printed on the mobile food vendor's permit, Rollins says he didn't know about it. And until Linton began hounding him, Rollins says he had never been approached about the clause.
"There was a whole stack of paperwork," he says of the permitting process. "I just wanted to sell hot dogs."
Two hot dog vendors in front of Duke Hospital say they, too, are familiar with Linton and his white Chevy. Steve Pruner of Outlaw Hotdogs says he first encountered Linton in late May. Teresa Ellis of B&J Hotdogs says she had seen Linton "almost every day" from late February through late June. She says it was "embarrassing when he's going through your permits and papers and everything" in front of customers.
"He made me feel like I didn't want to come anymore," Ellis said.
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University vice president of public relations, says following the complete city ordinance is a matter of safety. "When there is a lot of activity [in front of the hospital] and the vendors are not following the ordinances, then we will look to ensure they are followed."
Schoenfeld said Duke police have intervened when vendors' carts "have blocked visual lines of traffic, made people stand in the street while waiting to cross and when their carts have been parked on the sidewalk" and have not moved as required—all violations of city ordinances.
A Duke officer issued a single warning ticket, with no fine, to one of the vendors whose vehicle was parked illegally, Schoenfeld said. "We have alerted city officials with our concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety in a very busy area and have encouraged them to address these issues directly with the vendors."
This particular offense is a low priority for the Durham police, according to Steve Mihaich, deputy chief of the operations bureau. "We're trying to protect the public. I'm not sure this is protecting the public," he says. "I don't have the resources to follow a vendor every 15 minutes."
Mihaich adds that it is uncommon for Durham police to receive reports of violations of the mobile food ordinance.
The ordinance is in a gray area for city authorities. Since it was drafted in May 1990, the city has experienced an influx of mobile food carts like hot dog stands and food trucks. On June 14 of this year, city officials began reviewing the ordinance, including that troublesome clause, by convening representatives from several city departments for consultation. There is no deadline for the revisions.
The mobile food cart vendors have a tacit understanding with the city, if not Capt. Linton. City Billing and Collections Manager Paul Mason says that the city will not enforce the "60 feet, 15 minutes" clause on mobile food vendors downtown unless there are complaints. The city police have been instructed not to issue criminal citations for the offense unless the city manager's office has already levied civil penalties to no effect.
Josh Pfohl, who operates Four Corners of Durham, used to vend in the area as well. He cites his own experiences to show that police attention hurts business. "When he [Linton] came up, I had a line of seven people. They all just kind of dispersed when he started asking me questions, and they never came back."
In April, Ellis retreated from Linton's territory to an area near the Durham County Courthouse on East Main Street for two weeks. She returned to her usual Duke Hospital spot because her regular customers kept calling her to come back. Linton has not approached her for several weeks.
Rollins has moved to a new location in front of the post office on Chapel Hill Street and says he might even expand his business back to his old location. "I love it here," he said, "but I'm thinking about getting another cart."