Chef trades gumbo for signatures to allow food trucks in Baker: ‘I don’t go down without a fight’ | Communities

Inside a small blue food truck in Baker, Nancy Thomas — a resident, businesswoman, single mother of five and self-proclaimed “woman of the people” — takes to her cooking pot each Sunday. She fills the 25-gallon drum with enough ingredients to feed a city starved of soul food.

And because city leaders say she can’t sell it, she gives it away in exchange for signatures on a petition to change local rules. 

Debate over a Baker ordinance prevents Thomas from peddling food out of the truck. But she is allowed to serve it up without charge, like she does at homeless shelters around East Baton Rouge.

So, week in and week out, the “Southern Belle Chef” stands inside the Shugga Shacc dishing out free jambalaya, burgers and smothered-turkey-neck gumbo to anyone who asks.

“While they’re here enjoying my food, they might as well sign a petition to support the truck,” Thomas explained. “I’ll be out here every Sunday until I have enough signatures to petition the City Council.”

On a recent Sunday, Danielle Smith, a Baker resident, held a bowl of gumbo in one hand while signing the petition with the other.

“She’s a Black woman, a single mother and an entrepreneur trying to feed her family,” Smith said. “I’m all for seeing Baker grow, and if she wins this, I think it would open the door for a lot of people to get their own food trucks. I don’t see why the city is giving her trouble.”

Thomas said she opened the Shugga Shacc’s serving window in the parking lot of her retail store on La. 19 in May 2021. A few days later, police told her to shut it down because “food trucks are not allowed in Baker.”

“One thing about me: I don’t go down without a fight,” Thomas said. “I had never heard of a law prohibiting food trucks, but my truck is licensed, and my business is legitimate. I know I have the right to own and operate this business.”

The city ordinance that governs restaurants in Baker leaves room for interpretation when it comes to food trucks: the phrase “food truck” is absent. Thomas said the ordinance covers eating and drinking establishments, however, and Shugga Shacc fits the bill.

She contacted her council representative, Chauna Banks, who sympathized with Thomas.

Banks pleaded Thomas’ case to Mayor Darnell Waites, and instead of going through the planning and zoning commission, he granted a temporary permit to sell out of the truck. He later defended the move in a public meeting when Councilwoman Glenda Bryant criticized his decision.

Bryant said city rules prohibit food trucks, and called Shugga Shacc an “eyesore.” She said two other food truck owners have been asked to leave the city.

Councilwoman Brenda Jackson said a few residents expressed concerns about the food truck, and she told them she did not approve the business. She said allowing food trucks “does not appear to be in the best interest of the city.”

A third council member, Charles Vincent, said he polled residents of his district, and 80% were opposed to allowing food trucks.

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Thomas said she has not spoken to a single resident who opposes her right to run her business.

“No one who eats my food wants me to stop cookin’ it,” she said. “Maybe if (the council) tried my cookin’, they’d change their tune.”

In June, Councilwoman Rachel Dunn asked the city attorney to draft a new ordinance that would outline regulations for “rolling vendors and food trucks.” She introduced the proposed ordinance on July 13, but it failed with Bryant, Jackson and Vincent voting against it.

“I just don’t understand why they don’t want me to bring more business to Baker,” Thomas said. “I think they’re scared of change, but changing the law to reflect a new form of business wouldn’t hurt the city at all.”

Allowing food trucks in Baker could nurture the city’s economy, city spokeswoman Becky Bond said. Food trucks, like any new dining establishment, would boost the city’s restaurant and sales tax revenues, she added.

Banks, who represents Baker on the Metropolitan Council, wrote a letter to council members and the mayor in support of Thomas’ business venture.

She said as of 2021, more than 24,000 food trucks nationwide bring in $1 billion of business annually, and the industry grew 7.5% between 2015 and 2020. She said selling food street-side from small carts and mobile kitchens has a history in urban areas that dates back to the 17th century.

“Given the low cost, many would-be restaurateurs opt to open food truck businesses, which now are regarded as respectable venues for starting a career in the food business,” Banks wrote.

Banks noted how Thomas uses Shugga Shacc for community outreach: She fed hurricane victims in Lake Charles and Beaumont, Texas, served EMS drivers in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Ida, and nourished the public at fairs, festivals, concerts, sporting events and homeless shelters.

“I am extremely impressed with her ambition and work ethic, defying the odds of her having grown up in the foster care system and being a young, successful mother of five,” Banks said. “I am delighted that this successful entrepreneur desires to continue to serve our local community and the city of Baker.”

Thomas said serving her community means everything to her, and she spends countless hours a week pursuing that passion. She brings Shugga Shacc to Plank Road five nights a week and serves a line of customers until 4 a.m.

“I love my customers, and they love me back,” Thomas said. “They can’t believe I’m being pushed out.”

As of this past week, 126 Baker residents had signed Thomas’ petition. She is aiming for 250 signatures, a show of support that can put an opposing council member in her corner.

“I know people that have sold their food trucks over this, who wanted to start a business but couldn’t,” Thomas said. “But I’m a fighter, and I won’t stop making noise until we’re allowed to operate our businesses in this city.”

Until food trucks make it onto the council’s agenda again, Baker residents can get Thomas’ soul food for free at 1006 Main St. every Sundays.