Jack Roundtree had barely set up his food truck in at the old Rich’s restaurant in Green Cove Springs. His customers, robbed of electricity by Hurricane Irma, were just lining up for lunches of hot barbecue, when two police cruisers pulled into the parking lot.
The officers told Roundtree to pack up and leave. City manager’s orders, they said. Roundtree didn’t have a permit, and he couldn’t get one if he wanted to.
Let me put the situation in context. Hurricane Irma had done her worst in the early morning hours of Tuesday. The city was a mess of downed trees and downed power cables. By Wednesday, many if not most city residents were still without power even though the sun was shining and the air was dry. There were few places serving food in Green Cove, but the demand was overwhelming. McDonald’s ran out at 2 p.m.
The utility boys from Troy, Alabama, were arriving on scene to put the city back online, and Roundtree was determined to do his part, too.
“Anybody in a utility vehicle we would feed for free. If they came in a utility vehicle, they were going to eat,” Roundtree said.
Having been run out of town, Roundtree said, he drove his TripleJ BBQ truck over to St. Johns County, where he encountered a highway patrolman. Have you thought about setting up in Palatka, the officer asked? Roundtree replied that he wanted to avoid a repeat of his Green Cove experience.
The officer called Palatka’s mayor, who said he welcomed anyone with warm food. Please come. Palatka had no power and no open restaurants. Alas, by then the time for lunch had passed, and Roundtree had other commitments.
Here’s how one Green Cove Spring witness, Bettie Tune, described the events at Rich’s on her Facebook page:
Just saw a BBQ food truck set up in town. GREAT!! Wanted to stop and get a good lunch for the guys helping us. When I pulled in, there was a Green Cove Springs police sitting there. OK, everyone has to eat, and the choices are very limited right now. Starting to talk to one of the guys from the food truck and found out that the "city manager" had sent her police to make them leave. This is such a great little town, but it seems like the people who run it do their best to keep it from progressing. THANKS Green Cove Springs City Manager. Shame on you!
Mrs. Tune was not alone. By Thursday, half the town was abuzz about how the city ran Barbecue Jack out of town. It was interesting to learn that Roundtree and his truck were encouraged to serve customers during Green Cove’s monthly Saturday-in-the-Park event without a permit, but during Irma’s aftermath, not so much.
Had Roundtree decided to press his case at City Hall, he would have been greeted with a sign that read: “Due to Hurricane Irma, City Hall offices and services will re-open on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.”
Local attorney John Whiteman happened to take a photograph of the sign on the glass door, fully reflecting the blue skies-sunshiny day. “Not the best message because it gives the impression that no one's working when I'm certain that wasn't true,” Whiteman said, speculating that the city’s administrative leaders were ensconced in the security of the police station for the duration of the emergency, thus avoiding having to communicate with the general public about things such as food truck permits.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that not only did our local Chinese restaurant open on Wednesday (unlike city hall), but the China Wok was also serving customers the night before the storm’s passage and the day after, when nobody had power. Wok’s dedicated employees came to cook on gas cooktops by flashlight so local people could have a hot meal. In darkness, folks lined up outside the door for egg rolls and fried rice.
Kudos to the first responders and utility workers, but let’s also give credit to Jack and son Jordan Roundtree for their good intentions and the employees at China Wok.