Cover Story

Frankie's Grilling

by R. Reese Fuller

A revised Lafayette city-parish ordinance turns up the heat on street vendor Faramarz "Frankie" Yaghobi.

On March 3, a longstanding city ordinance that prohibited residents from parking vehicles in a public parking space for making repairs to a vehicle, displaying it for sale, washing or greasing a vehicle or "any commercial advertising purposes" was revised to make it illegal to operate a business from a public parking space.

For Faramarz "Frankie" Yaghobi, it was bad news.

The Iranian immigrant and street vendor has sold food from his mobile kitchen on wheels for the last six years under the name Frankie Burger. Yaghobi caters to the weekend late-night crowd in downtown on Jefferson Street. Under the revised ordinance, Yaghobi received three $90 fines within a week. Undaunted, he vowed to pay the fines and continue business as usual.

But Yaghobi didn't count on a number of unexpected visitors. First, a Lafayette fire inspector informed him he was violating city-parish fire codes. Then, a state alcohol and tobacco control officer stopped him from selling cigarettes on Jefferson Street. Later, a Lafayette police officer told him to move his trailer off Jefferson Street or risk having it towed. And that was all within 24 hours.

For Yaghobi, business as usual is becoming highly unusual. As a result of the recent flurry of bureaucratic interest in his operation, he moved his trailer to a private parking lot between City Bar and the old Lee Furniture building on Jefferson Street last weekend, without incident.

Some downtown business owners say regulation for street vendors is overdue. Others say city-parish officials are singling out one individual with the revised ordinance. City-parish officials claim that all downtown businesses deserve a level playing field. But one thing's certain: talk to anyone with a stake in the matter, and one name inevitably surfaces ' Frankie.

At 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 17, after the lunch crowd has thinned out, Nidal Balbeisi stands on the sidewalk with a cell phone to his ear in front of his Zeus Greek and Lebanese Café on Jefferson Street. Directly in front of him, a faded white GMC Safari minivan with an 8-foot trailer occupies two parking spaces. The white trailer is trimmed in bright green paint, and its roof holds three large black wind turbines. Two green envelopes with parking tickets are wedged under the van's windshield wipers, and the two parking meters for the spots are blinking, indicating that the time has expired.

"This is so ridiculous," Balbeisi says. "I paid $300,000 for this business, and I pay taxes. Why don't I just give him the keys to this business, and I can take his spot? I'll pay the city $100 a day. I'll even pay them $200 a day." A couple walks out of his restaurant, and Balbeisi smiles and thanks them for their business as they pass.

He turns his attention back to the trailer. "He's been parked in front of my restaurant since 4 a.m.," he says. Balbeisi's been on the phone since 8 a.m. trying to get the trailer moved, contacting the Lafayette Police, City-Parish President Joey Durel's office and even the city-parish traffic and transportation department.

Yaghobi recounts the morning's events differently. He says that when he arrived downtown at 3 a.m. that morning to park in his usual spot in front of Renaissance Café and Night Club, Zeus employees had parked their vehicles there. He says he asked them to move, but they refused, so he parked in front of Zeus.

"He's taking the spots for my customers," Balbeisi says. "We're struggling for parking. He brings it in on Thursday and leaves it there until Sunday. My customers say that they won't come down here for lunch because they can't find a parking space." He estimates that for each day the trailer and van are parked in front of his restaurant, he loses about $500. He says that his overhead is around $700 a day, and Yaghobi's is nothing. "The whole situation is wrong," he says. "We pay a lot of money for property taxes, and we have a higher overhead every day. They can ticket him $100 a day, and that doesn't mean anything. That's just the cost of his overhead."

Balbeisi says that this is the first time that Yaghobi parked directly in front of his restaurant and that he has nothing personal against the vendor. The Zeus owner had even signed a petition Yaghobi circulated in hopes of keeping his business running. "I wish to God he would make millions of dollars, just don't hurt others. I don't think it's right."

But an internal city-parish government e-mail, obtained by The Independent Weekly, states that Balbeisi had contacted the traffic and transportation department the previous Friday, complaining of the same problems. It reads in part: "He was livid, and ranted & raved, it seemed forever. It seems Frankie has been parked in front of his restaurant since yesterday, with his trailer and a truck." According to the e-mail, Balbeisi stated that he "might have to get a $10,000 trailer and do the same thing as Frankie."

Renaissance owner Judd Kennedy says that on the day the e-mail was sent, Yaghobi's trailer was parked in front of his club, two doors down from Zeus ' and it wasn't blocking the view or the traffic of Balbeisi's restaurant.

The following week, Balbeisi's repeated phone calls to city-government finally result in a fire inspector paying a late-afternoon visit to Yaghobi's trailer. But since Yaghobi isn't open for business at the time, the inspector informs Balbeisi that no fire codes are being violated.

A little after 7 p.m. that night, Yaghobi moves his trailer up one spot so that it's not completely blocking the view of Zeus. Just minutes earlier, he received a visit from Fire Inspector David Sinegal who informed him that the electrical extension cord to his trailer from Renaissance was in violation of fire codes. (Yaghobi uses the electricity for his hot water heater, lights, a refrigerator and freezer and exhaust fan, items required by the state health department.) Without electricity, he can't open for business.

He stands outside the doorway to Renaissance, two doors down from Zeus, and looks dejected. "It's not good," he says.

Yaghobi crawls into his van, turns on the interior light, slides the door closed and sits down on the back seat. He's surrounded by a ladder, a case of bottled water and two large boxes of Fritos. A pillow and blanket are piled up next to him. He spent the previous night sleeping in his van ' it was cold for March ' and he's weary.

He opens a briefcase and sifts through his files. He pulls out his current permit from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals' Office of Public Health and a current permit from the state's Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. Yaghobi has operated for six years, first on the McKinley Street strip and more recently on Jefferson Street in downtown, with a vendor's permit from the city and a permit from the state health department. He says his current vendor's permit is inside his trailer and he can retrieve it, but he doesn't move. Instead, he stares out the van's front window into the headlights of the passing cars.

"What do you think?" he asks. "Did they win?"

He says he could always hook up his generator for electricity. But slouching back in the seat, resting his head on his hand, he looks exhausted. He doesn't know what he's going to do. "I'm so tired," he says. He decides not to open for business that night.

A good night's rest seems to renew his spirits. In a phone conversation the next morning, he says he intends to use his generator that evening. "Maybe they'll come and tell me that I can't use the generator," he says.

Friday night, around 6:30 p.m., representatives of the state alcohol and tobacco office pay him a visit and inform him that he can't sell cigarettes from his trailer, since his permit is only valid for McKinley Street. "So I said all right," he says, "I won't sell smokes." Five minutes later, Yaghobi says he was approached by a Lafayette police officer whose name he can't recall. He was told that he had already racked up three citations for violating the revised ordinance, and that if he didn't move his van and trailer, he would be towed. Yaghobi says there was no discussion about his generator. "They said you can't stay here anymore," he says. "They told me that the city council said I had to move and that I had a three-ticket warning."

Cpl. Mark Francis of the Lafayette Police Department has no knowledge of Yaghobi's claim. However, he says an officer might have felt that Yaghobi was given fair warning about violating the ordinance.

Yaghobi pulled his trailer out of downtown that night and didn't work the following Saturday either.

"He was a nice fellow," says James Richard, co-owner of Greenwood Shoes, across the street from Yaghobi's operation and Renaissance. "I tried to talk to him before, but it didn't work. I asked him just to park there at night, but he wouldn't listen to me." Richard's main complaint is that Yaghobi would leave his vehicle and trailer parked all day, even though he only operated at night, siphoning off valuable parking spaces for potential Greenwood Shoes customers. "He seems to be nice enough, but it seems like he just didn't want to follow the rules. We all have rules. We have to buy licenses, and we have to pay taxes, but he didn't want to do that."

Next door to Renaissance, Keith Sonnier, owner of The Ballroom, says that he tried to talk to Yaghobi for an entire year, to no avail. For Sonnier's catering business and the ballroom that he rents out for wedding receptions and other private functions, smoke from the trailer would billow through his front door, and there was always a mess left behind by the late-night crowd.

"The problem is that he covers three parking spots," Sonnier says. "I'm not telling him he needs to get out of town. I'm just telling him that he needs to not be right in front of my front door. I fought it about a year and then just gave up. He eventually moved two doors down. Everybody needs to make a living, but not in front of my place, and he wouldn't budge. I always lost. I tried like hell, I'll tell you that, but I always lost."

Yancy and Miriam Miller of World of Body Works, sandwiched between Renaissance and Zeus, say they've never had any problems with Yaghobi and that he's been a good neighbor. Michael Lamar, of About Faces, on the other side of Renaissance, agrees with the Millers. "I think they should share the wealth," he says. "He should be able to operate his business just as everybody does, as long as it's legal. That's how he makes his living."

Two city-parish councilmen agree with Lamar's sentiment and voted against the revised ordinance. "It was a little too preemptive for me," says Councilman Marc Mouton. "Government can't arbitrarily put people out of business. Sometimes too much government isn't a good thing. I didn't want to vote to kick him out until he had a fair day. This is his livelihood. That's why I voted against it."

"I think we're denying him a right to earn a livelihood," echoes Councilman Louis Benjamin. "I think that downtown isn't exclusive, and it isn't for only some people. If he buys a license, I think he should be able to come downtown and sell his goods. He had a license, but for another street. I don't understand what the difference is in the two streets. Maybe one of them is a gated community."

Andrew Duhon, customer and support services manager for Lafayette Utilities System, is heading the itinerant vendor's task force, a newly formed group that's examining the issues to offer possible solutions to the city-parish administration. He says that Yaghobi possesses a current vendor's permit from LCG that stipulates he operate his business on McKinley Street, but it would be difficult for consolidated government to require that Yaghobi stay in one spot. "One of the weaknesses in the law is that the remedy is to take him to court to keep him from operating," he says. "You can't remove him or immobilize him. It's a law without immediate teeth in it, without going through protracted legal proceedings."

But there are vendors in Lafayette who are mobile ' in particular, the street vendors at parades who sell novelty items. Duhon says those vendors are exceptions and are granted temporary permits for those events. Consolidated government doesn't offer an annual vendor's permit that would allow Yaghobi to move his operation around town.

Director of Traffic and Transportation Tony Tramel believes Yaghobi shouldn't be on Jefferson Street at all. "It's my personal opinion that he's not operating within the confines of his permit to begin with," says Tramel. "When someone puts down 104 McKinley St., it means the physical private property of McKinley Street."

Tramel says he has been dealing with complaints from downtown businesses about the smoke from Yaghobi's trailer, the use of propane for the mobile kitchen, chaining the trailer to a parking meter, public safety issues, unfair competition and even health department code violations. "The idea was to softly and gently indicate to him that this is unacceptable to this community and that he should move on," he says.

The newly revised ordinance doesn't limit the number of fines one may receive, nor does it state that the penalties could increase ' either in fines or criminal charges ' after a number of citations. "There has been some discussion about that matter," Tramel says, "and I think the administration may be looking into modifying it and making it clear.

"It was a parking ordinance," Tramel continues. "It had nothing to do with downtown vending or vending itself. We want to encourage vending, but we want to have a set of regulations for that. It's going to require some time to build consensus."

Radio station KSMB General Manager Mary Galyean hopes the consensus is reached soon. After the revised ordinance was passed, her station was ticketed for conducting a remote broadcast on Jefferson Street. "There's a question as to whether or not we should have even gotten one," says Galyean. "Why it even happened is still a mystery to me. I'm hoping that it gets thrown out because we don't think that we should have gotten a ticket anyway." Tramel agrees. "I think they were erroneously cited," he says.

The parking ordinance aside, Tramel says that it boils down to one issue ' all business owners need to operate on a level playing field. "We need to all play by the same rules," he says, and adds that the rules have been explained to Yaghobi on many occasions. "However, [Yaghobi] somehow pleads ignorance and doesn't understand English at times," says Tramel. "At other times, he very clearly understands what's going on."

Yaghobi's latest move indicates that he will do everything in his power to keep his business open. This past weekend, he set up shop in the parking lot between City Bar and the old Lee Furniture building. Marley's co-owner Andy Monceaux owns the property with Eric Cloutier. "I hope that everybody can have some peace now," says Monceaux, "and that Zeus and all the restaurants can get along and have a good time."

Longtime vendor Yaghobi says he's not looking for a fight and hopes the new location will put an end to his recent headaches. With a smile, the consummate businessman says, "If you like the Frankie burger, then please take care of my business."