Is the health department hurting business?

On a cold but sunny winter day, Christopher McRae, owner of Main Street Hound Dogs is still open for business, pursuing his passion for selling hot dogs. Soon, the winter weather will drive McRae indoors for the rest of the season, and his business will be shut down.

The question is whether the shutdown will be permanent. McRae is looking for another job, one that will provide not only more income, but stable income.

Still, McRae hasn’t given up on hot dogs. Given the chance, he would be a hot dog mogul. He has looked into expanding his business in Memphis and in other towns in Shelby county. The main obstacle he faces is not a slow economy or a miserly banker denying loans. Instead, his plans are limited by local government.

In order to protect the public, the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department limits street vendors to a single area. The only place in the entire county where one can sell food from a cart or stand is on the mall in downtown Memphis.

People have expressed interest in having McRae bring his hot dog business to other parts of the county, but because the health department is unable to enforce a portion of its health codes beyond a very small part of the county, McRae cannot expand his business.

A hot dog may seem like a trivial concern, but it isn’t. A hot dog is an amenity. A hot dog is an attraction. Hot dog carts, pretzel carts, and taco trucks are all opportunities for growth. For Memphis to position itself as a vibrant city, every advantage possible should be used.

Memphis has an excellent high-end dining scene. And, though it pales in comparison to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, Memphis has Beale Street and other thriving night life. What Memphis needs is a thriving street food scene.

It may seem like a small thing, but ask any visitor to New Orleans if they weren’t charmed, and often well fed, by Lucky Dog carts in the French Quarter and central business district. A little extra charm and interest couldn’t hurt Memphis tourism. Or Millington tourism. Or Collierville tourism. And things that tourists like can be things that citizens like. Give people even more dining options, and they have one more reason to stay here. And businesses have one more reason to come here.

A hot dog stand may not be as urgent a civic improvement as reducing crime or improving education, but like those two things, it is about quality of life. There is no reason for our local government to stand in the way of that.

I have a feeling that one of my new year’s resolutions for 2010 will involve letter writing. And definitely more rants — I haven’t even gotten started on the whole health department and the farmers market insanity.

Street food conference in San Francisco
Christmas 2009

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