An apology and how to convey to the public that most food trucks are safe were on the agenda Monday night when local food-truck owners met with representatives of Louisville Metro Health Department.
At issue, reports WAVE 3 aired two weeks ago from Troubleshooter Eric Flack on food-truck sanitation. In the segments, which the local NBC affiliate promoted heavily, Louisville Metro Health Department representative Connie Mendel laughed on camera and said no when asked if she ate at food trucks. Food-truck owners also lambasted Flack's piece for confusing temporary food stands with food trucks. The stands operate with 14-day permits, the latter operate with annual licenses and stricter sanitation requirements.
Matthew Rhodes, deputy director of Louisville Metro Health Department, began the 30-minute meeting by apologizing to the eight food truck owners in attendance "for the harm that may have been caused by the story." Members of both local food-truck organizations, which represent more than 90 percent of the city's food trucks, were at the meeting.
"I just wanted to sit down with them to create a dialogue and try to determine the most appropriate manner of how we move forward to ensure safe and sanitary operations for those food trucks," Rhodes said. "But, more importantly, how we convey to the public that the legitimately operating food trucks are operating in a legitimate manner and are safe and sanitary."
"Apparently the woman who was on camera [Mendel] feels really bad," said Jesse Huot, co-owner of Grind Gourmet Burger Truck. "The interview lasted a full 30 minutes. And Flack only used that one clip. Apparently they [the health department] had a media person in the room with them during the interview. And they talked about the difference between the temporary permits and the annual food truck permits and how those tent operations aren't really food trucks. But they [WAVE 3] used none of that."
Rhodes said that after Mendel's admission that she wouldn't eat at a food truck, the health department's press information officer asked WAVE 3 to allow her to retract or rephrase the statement, a request the TV station declined. (As the Associated Press's News Values and Principles explains, if a source wants to go off the record, that should be "negotiated at the start of the interview." Requests after an interview to retract, rephrase or go off the record, however, are a courtesy sometimes granted, but not always.)
"He did not specifically say 'would you retract that statement,'" Flack said. "He jokingly said, 'Oh gosh, you're not going to use that.' And I, absolutely without hesitation, said, 'I'm going to use that 100 percent because she was completely genuine.' Then I asked her a follow-up question about why would she answer it without ever retracting the statement herself."
Rhodes said he wasn't aware of the story's angle when WAVE 3 first approached his office. And Huot said that the angle also was a surprise to one of the food trucks WAVE 3 filmed: "Apparently they [WAVE 3] told one of the truck operators that they were doing a day-in-the-life piece to get access to the truck," Huot said. "Sneaky all around."
"Completely false," Flack said.
Also discussed at the meeting: food trucks getting sanitation letter grades similar to brick-and-mortar restaurants and how to implement different counties' grading systems. As Grind's other co-owner, Liz Huot makes clear in her rebuttal to WAVE 3's pieces, it's a move food trucks already have been pushing for. (Last week LEO Weekly analyzed the health department's numerical inspections scores and found that "food trucks are just as sanitary and in-code as those immobile brick-and-mortar establishments.")
Monday's meeting came about after John Sutton of Johnny's Diner Car approached the mayor's office and the health department.
"We knew about the story well in advance because the interview occurred back several weeks ago," Rhodes said. "We were under the assumption that it may not be a positive story. And we were thinking prior to the story how we would best move forward with the food-truck community. Mr. Sutton's inquiry with the mayor gave us a point of contact in order to reach out to him and set up the meeting and create a dialogue."
"It wasn't a super productive meeting, but it did open that line of communication with them," Huot said. Another meeting is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 26. "That will probably be a little meatier," Huot said. On the agenda: examining and overcoming the obstacles for food trucks to get letter sanitation grades. Flack said he's planning another segment on the letter grade angle today.
Joining Rhodes from the health department was environmental health supervisor Gretchen Boyd. The food truck owners represented the Louisville Food Truck Association and the Louisville Street Food Alliance. According to a comment Grind made on its Facebook fan page, efforts will be made to reach out to non-members regarding future meetings.
While last night's gathering was at the Hampton Inn on Phillips Lane, Louisville Street Food Alliance's usual meeting spot, the next meeting will take place at the health department's offices.
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[Photos: Courtesy Facebook/Louisville Street Food Alliance, Twitter/Louisville Food Truck Association, Louisville Metro Government and WAVE 3]