SOCIETY

The irrational crackdown on an Athenian food truck

On a recent Saturday night in the downtown neighborhood of Thiseio, a police car pulled over in front of Giorgos Glynos’s Food Truck. A second police car, this time with screaming sirens, followed a little later. It’s hard to imagine why the officers in the first vehicle had asked for backup, given that the two people who stood before them were simply cooks. In the meantime, passing drivers protested by yelling out of their windows. Underneath the dim street lights, the whole thing took on a cinematic quality.

“ As they were taking us away in the police car, like common criminals, my business partner, who happens to be a cinematographer, said ‘What a powerful scene.’”

Humor was their crucial ally on that day, as it turned out. Earlier, Glynos, founder and one of the cooks on the Food Truck – a mobile canteen for high-end, yet largely unrecognized “street gastronomy” – had been summoned to the Acropolis police station on six separate occasions. “Not once or twice. I was actually taken to the police station six times on the same day. I saw the on duty police officers twice that day,” Glynos told Kathimerini. A different excuse was used each time, following some kind of complaint.

“During one of the visits I was told that the documents I had were not the originals required, but photocopies, even though I had been told by police officers that I should carry everything in photocopied form. On another occasion they told me I had to pay a certain fee for ‘taking over’ the street, even though I did have another type of permit. The last time I was taken to the police station the charge was illegal trading, even though the canteen has always operated with a cash register, not to mention the fact that at the time of our arrest there was plenty of flea market activity on the street.”

About a year-and-a-half ago, Glynos, an astrophysics graduate with a passion for food, decided to develop a different kind of food truck featuring his grandmother’s recipes for gezleme, a Pontos delicacy made of traditional handmade phyllo pastry usually stuffed with spinach, fresh onions, feta cheese and mint. Besides an original take on street food, Glynos also wanted the business to be completely legitimate.

“I can’t remember how many departments I visited in order to collect all the paperwork. I have all the necessary permits, if not more,” he noted. The street canteen even features a HACCP food safety certification. The Food Truck, which Glynos calls “Katina,” hit the road a few days ago, carrying a special B type street trade permit. This license allows the Food Truck to change location under certain conditions (business is not allowed at archaeological sites or at the seaside, for instance). The conditions were included in a law ratified by Parliament last year as part of reforms to liberate the market in Greece. Nevertheless, it will take a while for the kind of growth the amendments were meant to signal to actually materialize. Initially, responsibility for inspecting such businesses was handed over to the municipal police.

Greek police authorities eventually took over the task, but they appear to be in the dark regarding which type of permits are necessary in each case, resulting in professionals being hassled on a daily basis.

“Every time somebody files a complaint, whether it’s a resident who’s upset because we’ve parked outside their property or a store owner or even a competitor – although fellow food truck owners tolerate us because we don’t sell competitive products, such as souvlaki and hot dogs – we have to go to a police station.”

Things get even more complicated when one considers that there are numerous legislative ambiguities that allow, for example, someone to work as a street vendor across the region of Attica but not in municipal communities of more than 3,000 residents.

“In practice, we’re only allowed to work on [the Saronic island of] Agistri,” noted Glynos. “In other words, the way things stand, you can play cat and mouse with the police perpetually.”

Nevertheless, just as he never stops thinking about adding new recipes to the Food Truck’s menu (besides gezleme, Katina also serves hot soup, savory Kaisaria and Armenian pies, hot Mexican chocolate and mulled wine, among other delicious offerings), he is also determined to find a solution to the red tape impasse.

“Given that the youth unemployment rate stands at 60 percent and the authorities supposedly want to give fresh impetus to entrepreneurship, why is it that they can’t issue a food truck license?” argued Glynos.

In fact, new permits can only be issued to members of special groups such as the disabled and large families, while these licenses cannot be ceded, transferred or leased.

“If a person sets up a business, he or she will hire an employee, will pay VAT and income tax,” noted Glynos. “We could all get together in a particular place where each of us could sell his or her own specialty, just like in other countries. At the end of the day it’s really not that complicated to figure out a way.”