Amherst has been kicking food trucks out of town since late August for failing to obtain a "transient business permit" after town officials reviewed a little-known 1993 town law that typically applies to peddlers, solicitors and junk dealers.
The most recent casualty was the popular Lloyd Taco Truck, which has been doing business in Amherst town business parks for nearly two years. On Monday, a Building Department code enforcement officer showed up at Amherst Commerce Park on Ridge Lea Road and demanded that the truck cease operation.
When the truck owner disputed the need for the permit and refused to go, the code enforcement officer called the police, then addressed all the people standing in line.
"He proceeded to physically get into the line and tell people that they needed to leave, and that this business is closed, and that we could not serve them," said taco truck co-owner Peter Cimino.
Then the police showed up. Cimino said an officer complained the taco truck dispute was "ruining my lunch break" and told the operators if they didn't pack up and leave, he was calling a tow truck.
"The way we've been treated, I can't say it's anything other than being bullied," Cimino said Tuesday.
The town is developing a new permit meant specifically for food trucks, but that is not expected to come before the board until sometime in November. In the meantime, however, food truck operators are expected to abide by the town's "peddling and soliciting" law.
Amherst Building Commissioner Thomas Ketchum and Town Clerk Marjory Jaeger said that law requires "a retail or wholesale business conducted from a temporary structure or tent, truck, van or trailer" to pay a $100 fee per truck per location. Each permit is good for 90 days.
"We are administering the law as it is currently written," Ketchum said, adding that he doesn't have the authority to make exceptions even though he is currently working to draft the new food truck law.
As to why no food truck has been required to pay the permit fee until recently, the building commissioner said, "They probably got away with a violation of the town law, just like the police don't catch all the speeders."
Cimino said his food trucks have not been trying to avoid the permit law. Before picking up clients in Amherst two years ago, he said, he called town officials to see if any permits were required and was told none were required. He and other food truck operators added that a truck that regularly visits five or six town locations would wind up shelling out $500 or $600 every three months, costing them far more than an annual permit for the City of Buffalo.
But short of a resolution from the Town Board placing a moratorium on food truck permit enforcement until a new law is drafted, town administrators said they must enforce the law as it exists now. And that's what they've been doing.
In late August, a code enforcement officer shut down The Cheesy Chick food truck. The owner's complaints about the town's existing permit requirements led Town Board member Steven Sanders to draft a resolution several weeks ago asking that a new food truck permit be created.
"If we already know the truck is safe, I don't care if they operate in 20 different locations," Sanders said.
On Friday, the Knight Slider food truck was catering a private event on Sheridan Drive when two police officers came up to the owner at the Building Department's behest and asked that he shut down. Owner Ayoub "Mike" Abboud said at that time he'd been serving people for about 45 minutes.
"I didn't want my food to spoil," Abboud said. "I said, 'If you give me just 10 more minutes, I'll be completely done,' and they said, 'We'd prefer you not to continue.' "
In all cases, the food truck operators said they were selling food on private property at the invitation of the businesses located there. They added that they have received conflicting information from the town about the permits and the required associated fees. Town Clerk Jaeger acknowledged Tuesday that the current law is "awkward" and confusing.
Both Lloyd and The Cheesy Chick have taken out permits for a single location. But Town Board member Mark Manna, who helped arrange the meeting between the taco truck owners and Ketchum, said a new law needs to be put in place as soon as possible.
"I don't think you can ask a business to pay $100 every time they want to stop at a street and sell a taco," Manna said. "We're going to drive poor Mr. Softee out of business."
In light of recent events, Ketchum and Police Chief John Askey said they've instructed their people not to disrupt food truck operations. If they do enforce the permit requirements, they said, they'll simply issue a court appearance ticket and let a judge decide how to handle it.
Askey also said he was embarrassed to learn that the "anonymous complaint" lodged with the Building Department against the Lloyd Taco Truck on Monday came from one of his own officers, who has relatives in the restaurant business and called in the complaint as a private citizen.
"I spoke with him today," Askey said Tuesday. "I specifically told him to have no interaction with those trucks. We are not, independently - through back channels or forward channels - going after these people on their own. I can't fix what happened, but I can make sure we're reasonable going to forward."