UPDATE: HPD's public information office called to say that, as of 2 p.m., "no complaint has been filed. No one by that name has filed an [Internal Affairs Division] complaint," the liaison stated.
An encounter with the Houston Police Department has left a local food truck owner unsure if he wants to continue operating his truck anymore, he said.
Around 8:30 last night, Joshua Martinez was in the middle of a routine dinner service, dishing up food from his bright silver truck, The Modular.
When red and blue lights lit up the parking lot at Liberty Station, Martinez poked his head out of the truck to see what was going on and was surprised to find out the reason for the commotion: The cruiser was there for him. An HPD officer walked up to the food truck and told Martinez that The Modular was in violation, he said.
Martinez was baffled. After all, he stated, "HPD has no jurisdiction over food trucks." The City of Houston's Health Department does, but that didn't deter the officer.
"He told me, 'You're supposed to move every 59 minutes. You're a mobile food truck,'" Martinez said, recalling the conversation 15 minutes after it happened last night. He spoke from the parking lot outside his food truck, which was parked on private property. "I showed him my licenses, explained that we are supposed to move every 24 hours and go back to our commissary."
"He didn't listen," Martinez said of the HPD officer. "He just kept saying, 'You're in violation. I can give you up to $6,000 in tickets.'" The staggering amount of the figure made Martinez freeze. "If I violated every health department violation there was, it wouldn't be $6,000!"
Martinez plans to file a formal complaint with the Houston Police Department. When reached today, HPD had no comment on the incident because a complaint had not yet been filed.
The HPD officer asked to see Martinez's ID, and he admitted that he was reluctant to provide his ID to the officer: "At the age of 17, I was a rat bastard kid and I did stuff that I'm not proud of." After providing his driver's license, Martinez said, the officer became even more hostile, insinuating that a $6,000 fine would be enough to permanently close down The Modular.
"And then I asked him, 'Who are you? What is your name?'" The officer's badge and nameplate were both covered by a reflective vest, according to Martinez.
Martinez says the officer's response was succinct: "'It doesn't matter what my name is, you're the one in violation.'" Martinez finally wrote down the license plate number of the HPD cruiser.
"You food trucks are a nuisance to the city," the officer reportedly said, before leaving without dispensing any tickets. No active incidents were reported at that address any time yesterday evening, according to the HPD's Active Incidents Report.
"I felt completely violated," Martinez said. The Modular has been one of the most respected food trucks in the small but growing mobile food movement in Houston, and even won first place at the Houston Press's recent Wingtoberfest.
"I ran one of the top restaurants in this city," Martinez said, referring to his time as the general manager at Kata Robata, "and I left that to carry a dream that I'd had seven years ago. Every day, I have massive anxiety. What is the City going to do to me today? I'm shaken and upset."
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As anxiety-inducing as running a food truck can be -- worrying about violations is one of many concerns, including razor-thin profit margins, frequent breakdowns and often untenable locations -- that hasn't yet deterred Martinez, who runs the food truck with Lyle Bento, former sous chef at the popular Feast.
"I'm working to try to help change a lot of these laws and show that we are a viable part of the community," he said. But now he's unsure if it's even a battle worth fighting, saying that he's seriously contemplating closing down The Modular and returning to the world of brick-and-mortar restaurants.
"Do we keep on doing this?" he asked. "Do we make a lot of money? No. But we're happy. All I want to do is make a living, have fun and sell good food."
"But I'm too old for this," he said.