Food laws send Durham hot dog vendor packing

Staff writerJanuary 5, 2011 

— Bull Citizen Joe Scarfo has been vending premium hot dogs – imported from Buffalo, N.Y. – at lunchtime, from a food cart in a parking lot at Erwin Road and LaSalle Street. Finding it was a good location last fall, he took a lease on the spot.

Then, after two months, he was told he was violating the law. To sell food from a mobile establishment at a single spot, on private property, he needed a minor special-use permit. Nobody told him that when he asked at City Hall if he had all his permits in order and was told, “Yes.”

Now, a special-use permit is good only for 45 days (including weekends) and can be renewed only once. Moreover, it would require Scarfo to provide restrooms for his customers and, for a food-cart enterprise just starting out, that wasn’t going to happen.

Now, if Scarfo were doing business downtown, he would be in the clear since the rules for mobile food vendors that apply at Erwin and LaSalle do not apply downtown.

Scarfo went to the planning department to see what could be done, and the planning department let him keep selling hot dogs while it took the matter to the city-county planning committee's December meeting. The committee, composed of elected officials, debated at length, then referred the matter back to the planning department for a month of further study.

That set the stage for a second lengthy debate when the planning committee reconvened this morning. They discussed different rules for different places, how it’s done in Oregon and Texas, what the law allows, the meaning of “temporary” and where Scarfo could go.

After all that, Scarfo got an offer of applying for an ordinance change, if he wanted to pay the $4,000 fee and wait for months without knowing whether the change would be approved. He even got a suggestion of seeking a city grant to cover the cost.

In the end, he got a “Sorry.”

“I’ll just move to another city,” he said. “I think Carrboro will have me.”

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