In mid-August, food truck owners and representatives of the Louisville Metro Department of Health & Wellness met at the department's office to discuss the trucks getting letter health grades like brick-and-mortar restaurants. No progress was made.
"I'll be honest, it was kind of silly," said Jesse Huot of Grind Gourmet Burger Truck via phone on Aug. 27. "It was like, 'We're kind of thinking about deciding to talk about getting letters in the future.' It was really vague. They didn't want to schedule another meeting."
Messages were left for Matthew Rhodes, deputy director of Louisville Metro Department of Health & Wellness, on Aug. 28 and again this afternoon. This article will be updated should he respond. UPDATE Sept. 13: Read Rhodes's comments at "Health Dept. Official: Food Truck Letter Grades 'Should Be a Reality'."
This meeting was the second time the groups convened in the wake of WAVE 3 Troubleshooter (zap zap) reports about possible health-code concerns involving food trucks. Those segments drew the ire of truck owners, who claimed Eric Flack's reports made factual errors and relied on sensationalist tactics. Also, food truck operators were pretty pissed that, when asked on camera if she'd eat a food truck, a health department employee laughed.
"Sitting in that meeting, I got the feeling that it [letter grades] wasn't going to happen," Huot said.
Huot said the health department's concerns included that
·trucks with bad grades would just go to other counties
·if a restaurant has a critical violation, it earns a C score, which it must post for 7 to 10 days before getting re-inspected; but some trucks go 7 to 10 days without operating , meaning they could avoid having to ever display the C grade
"Every point came back to the illegitimate temporary operations that don't get inspected now," Huot said. "Finally I said, 'You know what? I don't care because no matter what happens, I'm not the problem. My truck's not the problem. Nobody in this meeting is the problem. It's the ones that aren't here and aren't legitimate and skirting the law, those are the people that are the problem."
The health department's concerns, of course, aren't unique to Louisville. Food trucks started taking off in cities like Washington, DC, around 2008. It's not clear why Louisville's health department can't review and emulate how those cities have addressed these issues.
"The message for me was pretty clear: it's just not that important to them to work it out," Huot said.
Huot said that when he and other legitimate food truck operators see illegitimate food operations, they report them.
"We wanted to do the letter placards just to kind of clear our name and clear the air and prove that we're safe," Huot said. "In the inspection sheets that they leave, us, they give our number percentage at the bottom. So we all started putting that up [in the food trucks' windows] just to show hey, we got a 100 here, we got a 98."
"That wasn't required beforehand," Huot said. "Now they're talking about requiring that. But even then they said, 'Well, that's deceptive because a 95 could be an A or it could be a C depending if you get a critical violation." A critical violation automatically merits a C grade and re-inspection in 7 to 10 days.
"Those people who were kind of on the fence anyway about whether or not it's safe, we lost them in that [Troubleshooter] story. And we probably won't get them back," Huot said. "Letter grade or not, we have a 100 percent up in our window now. But the damage is done."
"The rumor, 'Did you hear? Did you hear that it's not safe to eat from a food truck?' That's out there. It's going around. And we can't stop it now."
The health department was represented at the meeting by chief health inspector Connie Mendel (the laugher on the Troubleshooter report), another inspector, environmental health supervisor Gretchen Boyd and Rhodes, according to Huot.
In addition to Grind, the food industry was represented by Johnny's Diner Car, The Bustaurant, William's Food Service and a BBQ operation. Some of those purveyors are commissary kitchens or rely on temporary permits, which made Huot wonder why there were involved in the meeting. No members of the Louisville Food Truck Association were there, as they were working the state fair at the time.