Pushed Around

For City Hall, one downtown cart vendor may be too many

Mark Lynch means business. He gets out of bed at 3:15 every weekday morning, and soon the oven in his small Montrose apartment emits the entrepreneurial aromas of his baking muffins. Then Lynch turns to the assembly-line task of sandwich-making.

Despite limitations of a right arm and leg partially paralyzed since birth, Lynch has his daily batch of goods finished in time for his 6 a.m. ride to the aging St. George Hotel in the north end of downtown.

He has his tidy silver vendor's cart loaded there shortly before 7 a.m. Lynch, sometimes aided by homeless ex-carny Winston Briggs, pushes the two-wheeled cart to the corner of Preston and Caroline streets.

Then Lynch's Finest, sporting a broad tan-and-green umbrella, opens for another day. For the past two years, the bearded man with the quiet smile has catered to clientele at various locations in the county's courts complex.

He sells a modest number of bottled soft drinks, doughnuts, baked goods and poor boy sandwiches to an odd mixture of attorneys, jurors, judges and even those newly released from the county jail just two blocks up the street. Along with the sales, Lynch dispenses directions. He makes change and small talk with the parade of participants in the justice system.

His counterparts in other metropolitan areas are considered an integral part of their vibrant urban scenes, which are coveted by Houston's downtown revitalization forces.

But Lynch is the lone daily street-cart vendor in Houston's central core. And based on his reception by city personnel, one vendor may be too many. Despite the seeming allure of pushcarts to a reinvigorated downtown, regulators have hounded Lynch with citations and city-code complaints.

The extent of that enforcement effort makes Lynch and his supporters shake their heads. Even City Councilman Joe Roach showed up to criticize Lynch, they say.

"He was scared to death -- very nervous about the whole thing," says Peter Heckler, an attorney who volunteered to defend Lynch in court.

"I watched him, this little guy pushing that heavy cart up the street every damned day, in every kind of weather, and never ever complaining about any of it," Heckler says. "And then here was the might of City Hall and city prosecutors beating up on him.

"It wasn't fair. It really pissed me off."

After vanishing from the Houston scene of earlier decades, pushcart vendors made a temporary comeback when the city licensed them to sell in Houston parks 12 years ago. But that effort was considered a failure. The customer traffic did not support operating expenses, and pushcarts that meet code specifications can cost more than $5,000.

Today ice cream vendor carts roam some neighborhoods. Others can be seen during festivals and special events. Malls and the downtown tunnel system sport pseudopushcarts that are little more than decorative stationary stands peddling beverages or snacks.

But Lynch, 44, wanted an authentic return to the pushcarts of Houston past. He had worked as an assistant manager in a restaurant and had other food-service experience. When he made his decision to pursue the pushcart plan, he was juggling three jobs: One was for a Randalls Flagship store, another was for a Wendy's outlet, and the third was selling ice cream from a cart.

"I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do," says Lynch. He took his menial savings and invested in his personal dream. "I wanted to own my own business. I wanted to be my own boss."

However, he soon learned the lesson of vendors: that the supreme boss is the maze of city ordinances and the people who interpret them.

City health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton says the regulations are to ensure that "mobile food vendors" comply with the Houston sanitation code. The licensed pushcart must be affiliated with a food commissary. Fresh water must be available. Sandwiches must be kept at a proper temperature. For cooked food such as hot dogs, a two-compartment sink must be attached for washing utensils on the cart.

Lynch got his commissary affiliation and license showing compliance two years ago, but that did not stop the confrontations. City inspectors were soon protecting potential customers from all manner of perceived health threats. Lynch, it seems, was selling muffins and sandwiches in wrappings that failed to state the ingredients and his address. He printed up labels, and the inspectors briefly left him alone.

Then his carafe-style coffee pots drew their ire. One anonymous complaint, filed early last year with the health department, accused Lynch of "selling hamburger, coffee, etc. all day and night." Lynch sells no hamburgers, and he closes the cart by mid-afternoon.

He dipped into his earnings to satisfy another law that requires him to buy and attach a $275 plastic-faced cooling container for the sandwiches.

But these early problems paled in comparison to the central issue: where he can stop his pushcart to make a sale. An ordinance prohibits Lynch from parking it on a public sidewalk or street. But to make a go of his business, Lynch has to move to intersections with the most pedestrian traffic.

Lynch, with the help of a lawyer, appealed to City Council to allow street sales. The vendor says the next day Councilman Roach appeared at his cart and told Lynch he "should have picked a better attorney."

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