ZURIK: Decades-old ordinance gives food cart monopoly in French Quarter

Published: Feb. 14, 2023 at 11:06 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A decades-old decision paved the way for a monopoly of sorts in the French Quarter.

Lucky Dogs’ bright red carts have become an iconic part of the French Quarter. However, they’re also the only pushcart vendor allowed to sell food in the area. Local food merchants say that decision shuts them out of the city’s most lucrative tourist area. They also say it makes it harder for them to get name recognition and grow their businesses enough to purchase brick-and-mortar locations.

Chef Demietriek Scott has cooked at some of the city’s most famous restaurants, including Commander’s Palace and Redfish Grill. He was born and raised in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward. After working for others, Scott decided he wanted to cook his own food, and started the Chef Scott Creole BBQ food truck.

He says food that comes out of trucks and carts like his gives New Orleans its culinary soul.

“Louisiana food is salt and pepper, they got flavor all the way down to every bite, you know what I mean? And not necessarily a lot of spice, it’s flavor. Flavor is what New Orleans is selling. That’s why people fly in from all over the world or come here,” Scott said.

He says allowing only one pushcart food vendor in the French Quarter is unfair to other businesses and gives far fewer choices to tourists hoping to grab food on the go.

“That’s wrong. You know what I mean? They need to be able to open the playing field up to every person in the city of New Orleans … and allow us to do the same thing,” Scott said.

The city ordinance that lays out who can sell food in the French Quarter was adopted by the New Orleans City Council in 1972 -- before Scott was born. It says that in order to obtain a permit, a vendor must have been operating continuously in the French Quarter for eight years or more, prior to Jan. 1, 1972.

At that time, only Lucky Dogs and an ice cream vendor qualified. And the ice cream vendor later went out of business.

“It’s other smaller businesses -- like myself and food trucks -- that are trying to be as big as Lucky Dogs is,” Scott said. “But at the end of the day, you know, there’s enough out here for everybody. They can’t serve everything, and they can’t catch every customer. So why not open it up?”

Dillard University political analyst Dr. Robert Collins says ordinances like the one the council approved in 1972 are extremely rare.

“Whether it’s an ordinance or whether it’s a state statute, there’s generally a sunset clause,” Collins said. “In other words, the exemption runs out after a certain number of years -- after 10 years, 20 years, 25 years, whatever. This seems to be an ordinance that protects this company from competition forever … for all eternity.

“They’re so rare that they almost never happen. This is maybe one case in 1,000, you might see cases like this.”

Newspaper articles from the 1970s show the city council wanted to remove peddlers and salesmen from the French Quarter streets. However, that decision also removed a newer hot dog company that rivaled Lucky Dogs.

“Lucky Dogs is … an iconic part of the city,” Collins said. “It’s in literature, it’s in film, etc. But I think if you asked the regular person on the street, ‘Were you aware that Lucky Dogs has a monopoly on the street vending business?’ I think they will tell you, ‘No, we didn’t know that.’ And I think if you ask them, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to see a variety, a diversity, of food choices, food trucks, food vendors?’ I’m sure they would say -- or at least 95% of them would say -- ‘Yeah, we’d like to have some diversity.’ Especially in a food city like New Orleans.”

Fox 8 filed a public records request with the city, asking for documents detailing fees it collects from Lucky Dogs. More than 2 1/2 weeks after filing that request, the city hasn’t turned over the information.

Records show one of the owners of Lucky Dogs is Louisiana State Sen. Kirk Talbot. Talbot doesn’t live in New Orleans and represents River Ridge. He was a young child when the ordinance passed, but his family owns the business and records show Talbot now owns about a third of the company.

In the state legislature, Talbot has touted the need for competition across several industries, saying it benefits consumers. However, Collins says, when it comes to his personal business, Talbot has benefited from a lack of competition.

“Talbot is a conservative Republican,” Collins said. “He’s known as being pro-business, and pro-free enterprise. But, apparently, he wants to apply those rules to everyone else. He doesn’t seem to want to apply the free enterprise rules to himself or his family business.

“So, that’s the problem. If he really believes in the free enterprise system, then he should have no problem, or his family business should have no problem, competing in the free enterprise system with everyone else. And if he has the best hot dogs, then he shouldn’t need a monopoly.”

Talbot declined an on-camera interview, but Lucky Dogs Inc. sent a statement that said, “In 1972, the New Orleans City Council unanimously adopted an ordinance addressing the expansion of street vendors in the French Quarter, in order to protect and preserve the area’s historic charm, character, and economic vitality. The United States Supreme Court unanimously upheld that ordinance in 1976. In its opinion, the Court noted that the Council reasonably decided that Lucky Dogs, and another longtime street vendor, had ‘become part of the distinctive character and charm that distinguishes the Vieux Carre.’

“The owners of Lucky Dogs were not involved in debating the 1972 ordinance, and our company was not a party to the litigation that followed. We love New Orleans and cherish the fact that locals and visitors alike love our products and consider our distinctive carts and vendors an integral part of the French Quarter’s unique charm.”

Scott says the lack of competition prevents locals and tourists from tasting all the unrivaled flavors of New Orleans.

“They should get a more diverse flavor, because there are new items that are created. You know what I mean? There’s so many new items we’ve taken from what all the traditional Gumbo, and, you know, etouffee, we’ve done different things with that,” Scott said.

Scott says the ordinance shuts out hundreds of people who would like to vie for a chance to operate food carts in the French Quarter.

“It’s a monopoly. And it needs to stop, because it hurts that local dollar,” Scott said. “You say, ‘We are fighting for diversity in our community, we try to help small business.’ No, you’re not … It’s hurting the people that’s really trying to build their name, their brand, their business and make better for the family.”

While Talbot is a Republican, he has been a frequent campaign contributor to the Democrats on the New Orleans City Council. Documents show his Political Action Committee and Lucky Dogs have contributed to many council members over the years.

Collins believes the reason for those donations is that the Council could easily change the ordinance to allow more street vendors to operate in the French Quarter. It would only take one vote by the council to change the rules. There are already exceptions for the Carnival season.

Scott says he isn’t pushing for food trucks to clog the streets of the French Quarter, but says he and others would like a chance to sell from food carts like Lucky Dogs.

“Let’s make the playing field levelized and everything for everybody across the board, so everybody can win,” Scott said.

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