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Food, glorious food

I just don’t care about Blue Bell

Sorry.

Paul Kruse’s father had warned him about the perils of family-run businesses, but he couldn’t escape his place as the obvious heir of a dawning ice cream empire.

After ascending to the corner office in 2004, Kruse delivered Blue Bell Creameries to its greatest height, becoming the No. 1 U.S. brand.

This year, it took barely two months to undo everything.

Ironically, Blue Bell’s food-poisoning crisis could give it a one-up on competitors, because it already has been forced to make expensive changes to equipment and safety protocols that other ice cream makers soon will have to emulate under new federal regulations. It took most of the year to upgrade while other brands gobbled up market share.

Blue Bell, for most of its history, moved at a measured pace.

That strategy won ardent followers as Blue Bell went into rural markets where competitors wouldn’t or couldn’t reach. With Kruse still in the driver’s seat, the company’s future may hinge on his ability to return to a course charted by his forebears.

[…]

Before the listeria crisis struck in March, it sold more than $333 million, according to Euromonitor figures updated in August. As a privately held company, Blue Bell doesn’t publicly disclose sales. But by that reckoning, it had, in one quarter, sold more than half of what it did in all of 2010 – and peak summer sales hadn’t even set in yet.

All that production came with a price. Brenham plant workers said sanitation was hurried. Hot water ran low. And federal records showed that problems reached to plants in Oklahoma and Alabama, negating the possibility that the listeria outbreak was a failure of one supplier, one machine or one employee. Somewhere amid all that growth, reality couldn’t keep up with the clean country image. Worse, it hadn’t been keeping up for years. Epidemiologists this year determined that illnesses from as early as 2010 were caused by Blue Bell – retroactive medical sleuthing made possible by the DNA database.

I’m not a native Texan, so I have no emotional attachment to Blue Bell ice cream. It’s just another brand to me. My wife, on the other hand, is a native Texan, and she feels deeply offended by the betrayal of trust by Blue Bell, which acted awfully indifferent to its listeria problems until they were finally forced to act. For that matter, she’s offended by their long, incomprehensible list of ingredients, which look a lot more like a science project than something that could plausibly called “homemade”. If you love Blue Bell and couldn’t wait for it to come back to your grocery store, more power to you. I don’t get it, but I’m not going to judge. I do hope that if they ever have another problem even remotely like this that they’re not given the benefit of the doubt. Once was enough.

UberEats

Some new food delivery options, at least for some people.

Uber

Uber will expand its presence in Houston this week with the local launch of its meal-delivery service, UberEats.

Beginning Thursday, Houston becomes the second city in Texas and the 10th in North America where Uber drivers will deliver meals. Customers in downtown and Midtown can use the Uber app to select from a list of 60 participating restaurants and place orders, said Sarah Groen, general manager of UberEats Houston.

After customers order and pay through the app, the company says an Uber driver will arrive with the food – already in the car in temperature-controlled containers – within 10 minutes.

“We keep that geography fairly small to make sure we can deliver on that promise of 10 minutes or less,” Groen said.

[…]

Several app-based and online food delivery services already operate in Houston and for longer hours. They include GrubHub, Favor and DoorDash.

Groen said Uber Eats differs because of its changing menus. Some participating chefs are creating specific meals for UberEats.

I have no feel for how big a market there may be for something like this. We cook or we eat out – even when we order a pizza, from Pink’s here in the Heights, I pick it up. If you’re the sort of person that is into this sort of thing, then this is good news for you. We’ll see if there are enough such people to make this a success.

The latest example of how nuts our beer laws are

Ridiculous.

The latest flashpoint between Texas beer lovers and state beer law is a 32-ounce aluminum can that bars and restaurants fill with beer and sell to be consumed off-site. The can, called a crowler, is praised for its convenience and ability to keep beer fresh for longer than traditional to-go packaging.

The problem, state regulators say, is that the law prohibits retailers who do not have a manufacturing license from operating the filling machine.

On Tuesday, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission made its most forceful statement to date, sending in agents to seize one from a bar that failed to cease operations after being ordered to do so.

The Cuvee Coffee Bar in Austin recounted the event on social media, giving it a Twitter hashtag of #crowlergate and setting the stage for another potential legal fight in the ongoing effort to change the alcohol code in Texas.

The friction began in late spring, when regulators heard about the growing popularity of crowlers and began investigating, often undercover. Several bars and restaurants were told to stop crowler sales and seven, including three in the Houston area, received letters threatening fines and a suspension of their beer and wine licenses.

They were given 30 days to remove the machine, which retails for $3,600.

In announcing Tuesday’s seizure at Cuvee, the TABC acknowledged the likelihood of a legal challenge.

“We know this issue is important to craft beer retailers and their customers, and we support all citizens’ right to petition the Commission, the Legislature or the courts if they feel a provision in the Alcoholic Beverage Code is unfair,” assistant chief for audit and investigations Dexter K. Jones said in a statement.

“However, we do not support the continued violation of the law just because a retailer disagrees with it. Cuvee Coffee ignored our repeated warnings and discussions, and that conduct resulted in TABC seizing the illegal equipment and subjecting its permit to a civil penalty. Other retailers who engage in illegal canning risk similar consequences.”

Local bar owners say crowlers have several advantages over growlers, the glass or metal containers more commonly used for to-go sales. Sealed cans keep beer fresher by insulating it from oxygen and any sunlight, they say, and they are convenient because customers don’t have to plan ahead and bring a growler with them when they go out.

This was the latest chapter in this story, but the first shots were fired back in July, and got heated up earlier this month. At its heart it’s a question of semantics – is a sealed one-use can fundamentally different than a reusable glass bottle? – but however you look at it, the bottom line is that our current laws make something that ought to be allowed illegal. This needs to change, partly because we’re not in 1933 any more, partly because the state allows wineries and distilleries freedom to operate that breweries and brewpubs don’t have, but mostly because it’s a bad deal for consumers. There’s already litigation over the state of Texas beer laws – it’s unclear whether this action will turn into a separate lawsuit or not – and I suppose there’s always hope for further change from the Lege. But one way or the other, this needs to change. Austin 360 and Eater Austin have more.

A brewpub comes back to Houston

In my ‘hood, no less.

beer

A new brewpub will open in the Heights with an accomplished veteran of the Texas craft-beer scene at the helm.

Delicious Concepts Restaurant Group, which owns Lola, Shepherd Park Draught House, Witchcraft Tavern and seven Pinks Pizza locations, announced Monday it has closed its Tex-Mex spot El Cantina Superior near the White Oak dining and entertainment area and will reopen in the same building as a restaurant that makes and sells its own beer on site.

The as-yet-unnamed “American kitchen”-style restaurant will have a pizzeria and butcher shop in-house. But the rotating lineup of lagers, India pale ales and Belgian-style and other beers – including guest beers and beers made in collaboration with other local breweries – will distinguish it from most Houston eateries.

Brewmaster Erik Ogershok, an industry veteran who helped develop the award-winning portfolio of beers at the Hill Country-based Real Ale Brewing Co., joins Delicious Concepts as a partner for this and any future brewing projects.

“This particular part of the project is just the beginning,” he said, declining to elaborate on other plans.

El Cantina Superior, 602 Studewood, had a rocky history after it launched last summer. The restaurant struggled, and Delicious Concepts brought in the management team from F.E.E.D. Texas, including the well-regarded chef Lance Fegen, to retool the menu and supervise kitchen and service.

The ambitious restaurant with colorful, quirky decor earned a positive review from Chronicle critic Alison Cook. But in May, the two restaurant groups suddenly parted ways.

Ken Sheppard, Delicious Concepts’ marketing chief, on Monday acknowledged the problems. He said the restaurant likely opened too quickly and was probably too different and too much larger physically from the others in the group. He said he was proud of El Cantina Superior’s recent work but admitted it was tough to overcome the early travails.

Plus, he said the group has wanted to open a brewpub for “a long time.”

I can attest to the El Cantina’s rocky history. It generated a ton of scathing reviews on Nextdoor Heights when it first opened, then a bunch of “no, wait, it’s really good now” emails after F.E.E.D. took over, and then back to the bad after they left. Our personal experience with the place matches that pattern. It’s a shame as far as that goes, because when it was good it was really good, and there wasn’t anything quite like it nearby. Oh, well. This will be Houston’s first brewpub since 2010 when Two Rows in the Rice Village closed down. There are a lot of good options for both food and beer within walking distance of this location, so they’re going to have to do well on both counts to survive. Not clear when the new place will be up and running, but I look forward to it.

Lone Star Veterans Association benefit event

From the inbox:

To celebrate the upcoming football season, and to benefit the Lone Star Veterans Association (LSVA), the Houston Texans Grille at CITY CENTRE will host a “Pay What You Want” Day on Monday, July 20th. All of the proceeds will be donated to the Lone Star Veterans Association.

During this all day event, patrons may select one food item from the full menu, and pay any amount they are able to as a donation. And 100% of the proceeds raised from food sales will benefit the Lone Star Veterans Association!

Event is free and open to the public.

The Lone Star Veterans Association is a Houston-based non-profit organization dedicated to making Houston and Texas the best place for Post 9/11 veterans and their families by providing free career transitions, peer support and family services. LSVA’s office is open Monday through Friday 8am – 5pm, at 170 Heights Blvd. Houston, TX

To learn more about the Lone Star Veterans Association please visit lonestarveterans.org. To view Houston Texans Grille menu visit texansgrille.g3restaurants.com.

Who: Houston Texans Grille at CITY CENTRE
What: Pay What You Want pricing on one item from full menu
When: Monday, July 20th from 11:00am – 10:00pm
Where: Houston Texans Grille at CITY CENTRE, (I-10 W & Beltway 8), 12848 Queensbury Way, Houston, TX. 77024. (713) 461-2002

• Limited to Dine-In orders only (no Take-Out or To-Go orders)
• Maximum of one (1) entrée per guest under “Pay What You Want” pricing
• Guests may only dine-in one (1) time during the day to ensure all customers are served
• Any appetizer, entrée, or dessert on the menu will count as one (1) “entrée”
• “Pay What You Want” pricing offer excludes all alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages

See here for more. It’s a good cause and there’s food involved, so check it out if you can.

Keg dispute

Your beer choices at certain fancy restaurants in Houston have been curtailed.

beer

A dispute over deposit fees for kegged beers could slow the flow of several craft brands, including a few that are made locally, at some of Houston’s best-known bars.

The issue boiled over this week when Silver Eagle Distributors instituted an unannounced 20 percent hike in the deposit it charges retailers when they purchase kegs filled with beer, local proprietors said.

Two said they will stop purchasing kegged beer from Silver Eagle, at least temporarily. Affected brands include Houston’s Saint Arnold, Karbach and 8th Wonder, and such national brands as Firestone-Walker and Sierra Nevada. Because of state laws governing how beer is sold in Texas, no other wholesalers are allowed to carry those beers in Houston.

“It’s a really hard decision,” said Kevin Floyd of the Montrose craft beer bar Hay Merchant, referring to the decision to not have the local beers on tap.

But he said the $10-per-keg increase, to $60, double what it was just a few years ago, has prompted him and other bar owners to act.

Although the deposit technically is refunded when a keg is returned to the distributor, the retailer typically doesn’t see the money because the credit is immediately applied to the next keg. Depending on the size of the bar, the deposits could tie up thousands of dollars.

“That’s money that’s just caught up,” said Ben Fullelove, owner of the Petrol Station in the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest area. “You’re not going to see that money again unless you close down.”

Fullelove, who usually has 70 to 100 kegs on hand from various distributors, said he will be out of those supplied by Silver Eagle by the end of the weekend and does not intend to purchase more unless the deposit hike is rescinded. He said he wants to support local breweries as well as the national brands his bar is known for carrying. But he, too, cited the steep increases over the last six years and said enough is enough.

“How does it end?” he said. “Suddenly I’m paying $100 a keg? $200 a keg after a year?”

In an emailed statement attributed to John Johnson, executive vice president of sales and marketing, Silver Eagle Distributors cited increases in the deposit fees it has to pay when it receives the kegs.

“These deposit fees are a standard operating procedure in the industry and from time to time are increased by suppliers, resulting in an increase by distributors,” the statement read. “As a result, Silver Eagle recently increased the amount of its refundable keg deposit.”

Hope this doesn’t ruin anyone’s dinner plans. For a perspective from one of the microbreweries affected by this, read what Scott Metzger of Freetail Brewing has to say. From my perspective, this just highlights another flaw in Texas’ byzantine tiered distributorship model for wholesale beer sales. In a sane world, there would be more than one way to get their beer from the breweries to the retailers. Microbreweries won some freedoms from the Legislature two years ago, but they still don’t operate in anything resembling a free market. This is just one illustration of that.

Karbach’s new brewery

As we know, Houston has a lot of craft breweries, with the venerable Saint Arnold being the biggest, oldest, and best known. With the forthcoming opening of their new facility, I’d say Karbach is making a strong case to be next in the pecking order.

Karbach, founded four years ago by a pair of longtime distributors/importers who brought resources as well as experience to the enterprise, stands out even in an industry where rapid growth is the status quo and where production volume soared in double digits again last year.

In 2013, Karbach was cited in a New Yorker analysis as the second-fastest growing craft brewery in the U.S. and 2014 was a scorcher as well. Crews worked around the clock to brew 32,600 barrels of Hopadillo, Weisse Versa and other beers, and the only thing that kept them from making more was capacity.

The size of the new brewery, which faces Dacoma, around the corner from the original facility at 2032 Karbach, just outside Loop 610 in northwest Houston, addresses the immediate needs and leaves room to add on later. [Brewmaster Eric] Warner said the new equipment and automation upgrades also should improve quality and virtually eliminate inconsistencies between batches.

He and his team are already making beer there and plan to open the brewery to the public on or about May 15, slightly behind the originally announced first-quarter target date.

The facility goes live as the industry continues an enviable upward trajectory. In 2014, craft sales rocketed ahead 18 percent even as overall beer production rose a mere half-percent, the industry trade group reported at this month’s Craft Brewers Conference. A record 3,418 breweries are now in operation, figures compiled by the Brewers Association show, and 2,051 more were in the planning stages as of Dec. 31.

Across greater Houston, 29 brewery and brewpub licenses are on file with the state and most of those operations are up and running. In addition, strong brands from other states continue to expand into Texas.

Warner, who came to Houston in 2011 with a nationally recognized résumé in craft brewing, sounded nothing but confident about Karbach’s growth plans in this environment.

“Craft is here to stay,” he said. “I have no doubt about that. Craft is growing and will continue to take share.”

The primary challenge ahead will be to maintain shelf space at stores and tap handles in bars and restaurants, Warner said. In that regard, he thinks high-quality local brands will have a distinct advantage. He said Karbach plans to expand to the Dallas area this year but has no out-of-state plans until at least 2017.

“There are 30 million people in Texas,” Warner said. “A lot of beer drinkers.”

Another potential challenge, he added, would be if global giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, which last year made 13 million barrels of beer at its Houston plant alone, stop “dabbling” in craft beer styles and begin competing seriously with the Karbachs and Saint Arnolds.

Again, Warner sounded confident about the future, describing his company’s success in less than four year as “surreal.” He readily acknowledges the advantages Karbach has over many of the young breweries that are starting with far less capital.

I like Karbach, though Saint Arnold is still my favorite locally. I do need to take a tour of their new facility, which is one of several near where I live. As far as the macrobrewery threat is concerned, I just don’t see the AB-InBevs of the world seriously competing in that space. It’s not who they are, and I don’t see the type of person who drinks craft beer being lured to a craft beer-style product they might market. I think it’s more likely the big boys might try to buy up a bunch of craft brewers, like Microsoft or Google acquiring startups. I don’t know why they haven’t been doing that all along, to be honest. Be that as it may, congrats to Karbach on the new digs, and best of luck with the restaurant venture.

Who’s up for a macrobrewery tour?

This used to be a thing in Houston, and now it is once again.

beer

The local Anheuser-Busch plant was under construction at the same time as the Astrodome, and its ambitions were just as grand. With an annual capacity of 900,000 barrels of beer, it would be the biggest brewery Houston had ever seen when it opened in 1966.

It would draw its fair share of visitors as well. For a couple of years in the early 1970s, the 105-acre plant grounds were home to an avian-themed park called Busch Gardens, which included an Asian-style pagoda, boat rides and a domed ice cave. College students in miniskirts worked as hostesses during the summer.

Even after the park closed, Houstonians curious about malt, hops and “beechwood aging” made their way east down Interstate 10 to tour the brewery and hoist complimentary beers in the hospitality room.

But by 1996, attendance had fallen to the point that the corporate owners decided to do away with regular tours. The workers would remain focused on producing Budweiser, Bud Light and other well-known beers by the hundreds of millions of cans and bottles, but the public would be kept at bay.

Nineteen years and a sea change in the U.S. beer industry later, the company is throwing open the doors again in an effort to reconnect with consumers. An array of craft breweries unheard of two decades ago has nibbled away at market share, gaining fans not just with innovative products but also with wildly popular tours and special events that pack in crowds and send them home in branded T-shirts and ballcaps.

Damola Oshin, general manager of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, credits Houstonians’ growing interest in beer with the decision to reinstate tours here next week.

“We are the largest brewery in the state and we do need to get people in through our doors and show them what we do,” he said Thursday.

Beginning April 10, the brewery will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Visitors will be guided through the brewing and packaging areas and wrap up in a renovated tasting room for complimentary samples. A gift shop includes souvenirs from hats, T-shirts and coolers to stuffed Clydesdale toys.

[…]

Saint Arnold Brewing, the only local craft that was open in 1996, draws an estimated 70,000 visitors annually to its tours and tastings and another 30,000 to other events at the brewery, owner Brock Wagner said.

Now Anheuser-Busch wants the public to know its employees are as passionate and as proud of their work as are craft brewers, Oshin said.

Good for them. My wife, who grew up in Houston, has some fond memories of the bird park at the brewery that kids played in while their parents could quaff a cold one after a tour. I’d be interested in touring the place just to see what it’s like; I vaguely remember a visit to Busch Gardens in Tampa while on spring break in the 80s, which included a brewery tour. I have no desire to sample or buy any of their product, but I’m sure the operation would be cool to see.

Beer legislation 2.0

Just because craft brewers succeeded in passing a bill allowing them to sell beer for consumption on their premises last session doesn’t mean there isn’t more that can be done to advance the cause of beer freedom.

TexasCraftBrewersGuild

Twinned bills introduced this week would extend direct sales for breweries. The proposals by state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, would let customers buy beer that they could take away and drink later.

“This gives Texas breweries the same rights already enjoyed by wineries, distilleries and many of their out-of-state competitors,” Keffer said in a written statement distributed by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.

Under the bill, consumers would be restricted to a single purchase of no more than the equivalent of two cases of beer each month at a brewery. Advocates say this type of “souvenir” beer, often sold following tours or special events, can be an effective marketing tool.

“This legislation is designed to finish what we started last session and bring people from around the country to this state which is rapidly becoming the epicenter of craft brewing quality,” Eltife said in the statement from the Brewers Guild.

[Rick] Donley said the Beer Alliance [of Texas] is still digesting the details of this and other legislation affecting alcohol sales in Texas, but he sounded skeptical.

The Beer Alliance and major wholesalers have contributed many hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous political campaigns in Texas since the beginning of 2013. Major recipients include Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but the Beer Alliance of Texas PAC also gave a total of $5,000 to Eltife in June 2013, Texas Ethics Commission reports show.

Donley said it has been only a year and a half since the most recent law changes went into effect, and his organization would like more time to see how that plays out in the marketplace.

He also said he thinks the two-case-per-month limit is too high and he would want an annual cutoff on how much breweries could sell this way. The exemptions approved in 2013 limited breweries to selling no more than 5,000 barrels of beer on site. While the bill currently does not specify an annual limit, a spokesman in Eltife’s office said the 5,000-barrel limit would still apply to all beer sold on site, whether it was sold for on- or off-premise consumption.

Donley said the ongoing success of Texas craft brewing further suggests the industry does not need additional help.

[…]

Brock Wagner, owner and founder of Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Co., insisted the craft brewers are not seeking to replace traditional retailers. Rather, he said, this legislation would address the most common question from tour and special events visitors – why they are not allowed to buy beer to take home – and boost awareness of the brands.

Wagner also said lawmakers are probably more inclined to view craft brewers as important small businesses that deserve the state’s support.

See here and here for some background. As noted by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, the bills in question are Senate Bill 1386 and House Bill 3086. I understand the Beer Alliance’s hesitation – and it should be noted that they were among the good guys in 2013 – but it’s still crazy when you think about it that brewers can’t sell a six pack or two to the people that come to visit their facilities. It would be one thing if there were a blanket prohibition on all forms of booze, but that’s not the case – Texas’ wineries and distilleries can sell bottles on site. So can microbreweries in other states. What Texas does makes no sense, and it’s all about what the big brewers and distributors want. The difference between the faith in free markets that people constantly proclaim in this state and the actual freedom of some specific markets never fails to boggle my mind.

Anyway. As those links above point out, there were other issues that the 2013 legislation did not address that remain untouched by these bills. Licensing fees remain high, and microbrewers were forced by another bill from 2013 to give away their territorial distribution rights instead of being allowed to sell them. Again – crazy, right? A lawsuit was filed last December to overturn that law. I don’t know where that stands now, but there’s apparently no legislative fix for it. So, while this has been a lot more low-key this session, there’s still a lot to be done to make the beer market in Texas what it should be.

The Fair BEER Act

I’m in.

beer

The act would reform the federal beer tax imposed on brewers and beer importers and give a special boost to small brewers. The idea is to create a laddered rate that is based on how much a brewer produces, much the same way the income tax rate is higher the more money you make.

Currently, brewers are charged $7 a barrel on the first 60,000 barrels and $18 on every barrel thereafter. Two tiers do not address the wide variety of brewers in the market today.

The act, which was introduced by U.S. Reps. Steve Womack, R-Ark., and Ron Kind, D-Wis., would establish a more subtle schedule:

– No excise tax on the first 7,143 barrels;
– $3.50 a barrel on barrels 7,144-60,000;
– $16 a barrel on barrels 60,001-2 million; and
– $18 a barrel on every barrel above 2 million.

The 7,143 barrel cutoff is tied to the Treasury Department’s definition of a small brewer, which applies to 90 percent of American breweries. These are the small business people who provide variety to local bars and super-markets, but are not large enough to see economies of scale, to afford big marketing budgets or to sign national distribution deals.

[…]

The act has more than 20 co-sponsors, but none are from Texas. That’s a glaring omission since Texas has the second-largest congressional delegation and a rich history of beer brewing.

That’s for sure. It’s a bipartisan small business tax cut that would benefit a lot of Texas breweries. I have no idea what the hangup is. There’s not a whole lot of legislation worth supporting out of this Congress, so let’s grab the few good bills there are with both hands. The Fair BEER Act is HR 767, and you can see some more information about it here. This press release has more.

My craft beer options runneth over

2015 could be a very fine year.

My personal beer map

Several local brewery construction projects headed for completion in 2015 are designed to draw in visitors as well as ship beer out the door.

The neighborhood-centric Town In City Brewing Co. in the Heights could open in February, co-owner Justin Engle said earlier this week, as workers poured and leveled concrete for sidewalks and a driveway entrance into the startup brewery at 1125 W. Cavalcade.

In addition to selling beer to other retailers, Town In City will open each Wednesday through Sunday for customers to buy beer that they can drink in its 700-square-foot taproom or 1,400-square-foot outdoor beer garden. Food trucks will be invited on-site, and there will be a dedicated secure bicycle parking area.

Engle said the goal is to create a neighborhood gathering spot like many of the breweries he enjoyed visiting when he lived in Colorado. He’d prefer a steady daily business to a more crowded once-a-week tour.

Engle and partner Steven Macalello bought a vacant lot on Cavalcade, between Main and Airline, and built a brewhouse with initial capacity of 2,300 barrels of beer a year. Watching over the final concrete pour was a major step for a project that began more than 3½ years ago.

“I’m ecstatic,” Engle said.

Meanwhile, Brash Brewing, at 510 W. Crosstimbers in Independence Heights, also could begin producing beer in February. Owner Ben Fullelove said the brewery plans to install glycol lines for chilling next week and get a final city inspection soon after. It’s licensed as a brewpub, though Fullelove said it won’t be open to the public right away.

“We are almost done,” he said in an email.

Although its beers have been brewed under contract in Massachusetts since 2012, Brash has strong Houston roots. Fullelove founded craft beer hot spot Petrol Station, and he hired Vince Mandeville, formerly of Saint Arnold, as head brewer for the local operation.

[…]

Last spring, Karbach broke ground on a $15 million project that will do more than just boost capacity.

The project, facing Dacoma on a 1.2-acre tract adjacent to the current brewery at 2032 Karbach, includes not only a new 19,000-square-foot, two-story brewery but also a public tap room and kitchen that will be open daily, plus space upstairs that will be available for special events.

Spokesman David Graham said Karbach hopes to open the space around the end of the first quarter.

I’ve highlighted these three breweries, plus Buffalo Bayou Brewing, on the embedded map. All are within about ten minutes of my house, with Buffalo Bayou and Town In City both being within biking distance. City Acres up on 59 North isn’t too far away either. I’m thinking I need to plan a few weekend beer tastings once the weather gets warm and all these places are open. Sounds like a good reason to get out of the house and hang out with some friends. For all that could be better in the world today, we do live in prosperous times.

Microbreweries file lawsuit over distribution rights

Interesting.

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Three Texas breweries filed a lawsuit against the state on Wednesday seeking to to overturn a 2013 law they say violates the Texas Constitution by forcing them to give away their territorial distribution rights for free.

In their complaint, filed in state district court in Austin, the heads of Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Peticolas Brewing Company in Dallas and Revolver Brewing in Granbury, say that were it not for Senate Bill 639, they would be expanding. Instead, their plans to bring their beer to new markets around the state have been put on hold.

In the suit, they accuse the law of “stifling the Texas craft beer renaissance.”

[…]

There are three “tiers” in the alcoholic beverage industry: brewers who make the beer, retailers who sell it, and distributors who pick it up from the former and bring it to the latter.

Prior to 2013, craft brewers could negotiate payment from distributors for the exclusive rights to deliver their beverages in a certain area. But the law, authored by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, prohibited the sale of these territorial rights.

Carona was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday. He told the Dallas Observer in 2013: “What happens when the large manufacturers decide to require payment from a distributor for the right to distribute their brand? We could be back where we started from, with those who won’t pay to play getting muscled out of the marketplace.”

Distributors are not prohibited from selling territorial rights that they have acquired to another distributor. The craft brewers’ complaint says, “A distributor is thus able to receive territorial rights for free and re-sell them for a profit.”

This strikes the brewers at Live Oak, Peticolas and Revolver as unfair — and in violation of the state’s constitution, which says that a person’s property can not be taken without consent unless it is for use by the public or an entity granted the power of eminent domain. Miller said it was likely that other craft breweries will join the lawsuit.

These territorial rights are “a valuable piece of property” that brewers should be able to sell in order to generate revenue for the growth and expansion of their companies, the lawsuit says.

You can read the lawsuit here. SB 639 generated controversy from the moment it was filed; it was clearly seen as a sop to the distributors that were trying to derail the package of craft beer bills that ultimately passed last session. It was a modified version of SB 639 that ultimately passed, but the objections to it remained. Austin brewery Jester King singled out SB 639 after the session as a remaining obstacle to the continued success of craft beer in Texas. I’ll be very interested to see who else gets involved in this litigation, and what bills get filed in the Lege this session to address those lingering concerns with SB 639.

Food trucks arrive downtown

Welcome.

Houston’s foodie community rejoiced Friday as Mayor Annise Parker welcomed propane-fueled food trucks downtown after a years-long ban, but more plans to loosen the city’s mobile unit rules are not likely to meet the same fanfare at City Council in the coming months.

Parker bypassed council to remove the restriction on propane-fueled food trucks downtown, citing a fire marshal opinion that tanks weighing up to 60 pounds are safe.

“It may not seem like the most important issue the city could address,” said Parker, standing in front of a colorful food truck, The Modular, across from City Hall on Friday. “But believe me, if you invest in a food truck, you want to serve great food to Houstonians, this absolutely makes a difference.”

Two other industry changes on Parker’ food trucks agenda – letting the trucks use tables and chairs and removing 60-foot spacing requirements between mobile units – need to go through council members, whose opinions on food trucks vary by district.

[…]

Council Member Brenda Stardig has proved a particularly vocal critic, calling for more food truck inspectors.

“I’m not against food trucks,” Stardig said. “There are some really cool ones. But some of the ones that historically we’ve had in District A, they set up shop permanently. Until we have the ability to have more inspectors, less regulation and opening it to a broader market is a concern.”

Council Member Robert Gallegos also said he would like to ramp up enforcement before loosening the rules. Gallegos’ district runs from downtown to the East End.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” he said. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

See here for the background. CMs Stardig and Gallegos have valid concerns, and the city says they are working to address those concerns. It should be noted that the city has more food truck inspectors per capita (three for 800 trucks, or one for every 267) than it does restaurant inspectors (30 for 13,000, or one for every 433). I hope we can agree on what needs to be done to address the issues that have been raised so we can move forward on this.

And we (finally) circle back to food trucks

We’ve done HERO, we’ve done vehicles for hire, what other high profile issues are there out there? Oh yeah, food trucks. I’d almost forgotten they were still an agenda item, but they’re back and they should be getting a vote soon.

Proposed changes to three major ordinances could provide food trucks with new freedom. While the commissary requirement isn’t changing, the other three regulations will be going away if the Houston City Council approves recommendations developed over the last two years by a task force that includes representatives from various city departments, food trucks and the brick and mortar restaurant community, as represented by its lobbying group, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

[…]

Laura Spanjian, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, explains that the goal of removing the prohibition that prevents trucks from operating downtown and in the Texas Medical Center “is to create a level playing field for food trucks.” In debates two years ago, some council members expressed concerns about the safety of having trucks, which can carry up to 60-pound tanks of propane, operating in the Central Business District, but Spanjian says the Houston Fire Department is “very confident there is not a safety concern in these two areas. They have a very strong inspection routine.”

Spanjian also notes that the city’s increased density makes separating downtown and the Medical Center from other, similarly populated areas like Greenway Plaza and The Galleria somewhat illogical.

Removing the 60-foot spacing requirement between trucks is another change to the fire code that reflects confidence in the Fire Department’s inspection routine and spot checks of truck operations. Both of these changes are being made as part of larger updates to the fire code, which happens every three years. Spanjian expects them to come to a vote before Council early next year.

The final proposed change is an adjustment to the health code that removes the prohibition against trucks operating within 100 feet of tables and chairs. As this requirement is routinely ignored when trucks park near bars in Montrose, along Washington Ave and the Heights, it brings the regulations in line with standard practices. If all goes according to plan, Council will vote on the issue in mid-September.

Spanjian also notes that the 100 foot rule should never have been in the health code. “There’s no health issue with a food truck being near tables and chairs. It doesn’t belong in the health care requirements at all,” she says.

While the 100 foot regulation may have been an attempt to prevent food trucks from competing directly with brick and mortar restaurants, Spanjian thinks the time has come for the two to be on a more equal footing.

“We’re letting the market decide, which is a very Houstonian thing to do,” she says. “It should be up to the private property owners what they want to do on their private property.”

The last mention I had of this was in November, right after Mayor Parker’s re-election, in which she promised that there would be a vote on a food truck ordinance by the end of this year. Before that, the news is all from 2012. If the Greater Houston Restaurant Association really is on board, or at least not opposed, that should clear the way. This Chron story from yesterday’s Quality of Life committee meeting sheds a bit of light and also suggests what in retrospect is an obvious parallel.

“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.

“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”

[…]

Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.

“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.

I’m not the only one who hears an Uber/Lyft echo in all that, am I? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Anyway, if all goes well we should see a Council vote on this in September. I look forward to seeing it get resolved. Link via Swamplot, the Chron editorial board is still in favor, and the Houston Business Journal has more.

One less food desert

From the inbox:

With high hopes of more to come, Mayor Annise Parker, Council Members Stephen Costello and Dwight Boykins, the Houston Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and others broke ground on the first project to target a Houston food desert. With financial assistance from the city, Pyburn’s owner John Vuong is building a first-class grocery store to serve South Union and surrounding neighborhoods. The store is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2015.

“An estimated two-thirds of Houstonians are overweight or obese and a high percentage of them live in food deserts with no access to fresh food,” said Mayor Parker. “This forces families in these areas to rely on unhealthy processed or fatty foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. I am excited that we are able to take the first step to address this problem that impacts the overall health of our residents and am confident there will be additional opportunities for grocery stores in other food desert areas in Houston.”

“Everyone should have access to fresh food, no matter the zip code,” said council member Costello. “I am grateful to the Vuongs for recognizing the need and reconfirming their commitment to serving the community. Pyburn’s will not only provide fresh meat and produce to South Union, but will also create jobs for our city’s youth and spur economic development in an area ripe for more industry.”

Vuong and his family own and operate 11 stores, nine of which are located in Houston. They have extensive experience operating in low to moderate income areas. The new venture, which must create a minimum of 25 jobs, will be the next generation of the company’s stores, named Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods. The funding agreement with the city requires that the store be designed to provide customers with a shopping experience equal to that of grocery stores in high income areas of Houston. In addition, there is room at the site for additional complementary development. The loan agreement prohibits uses inconsistent with community revitalization, such as liquor stores and pay-day loan establishments.

“My family purchased the land at Scott and Corder over eight years ago and this opportunity to partner with the City of Houston allows us to realize our dream of bringing healthy fresh food choices to South Union and the surrounding communities,” said Voung. “We are humbled by this opportunity to invest, serve and bring over 25 new jobs to this community.”

Council member Dwight Boykins is excited the new store will be located in his council district. “As a child growing up on welfare, my walk to school took me by this site,” said Boykins. “I am thankful to the mayor, the Voung family and all the other people who worked so hard to secure this opportunity for my community.”

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase healthy food for their family,” said Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust. “We applaud this initiative by the City of Houston to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas,” said.”

The City is providing a performance-based loan of $1.7 million for predevelopment, land acquisition, construction and equipment. The total project cost is estimated to be $3.7 million. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded to the Houston Redevelopment Authority for economic development projects will be used for the project. Funding is available for additional projects and HRA will work with potential partners on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for building or revitalizing grocery stores in food desert areas.

To combat food deserts in Houston, which has fewer grocery stores per capita than most large cities in the country, the Mayor, partnering with Council Member Costello, The Food Trust and Children At Risk, created the Houston Grocery Access Task Force in 2011. At the end of 2012, the Task Force issued their report, Roadmap for Encouraging Grocery Development in Houston and Texas. Economic development tools, such as performance-based loans, were highlighted as key opportunities to increasing access to fresh food. The report can be accessed here.

The Chron story is here. We first heard about this proposal in December. Council passed an update to its ordinance about the minimum distance a retailer that sells beer and wine must be from schools and churches in January to allow supermarkets to be built in some places where they would otherwise have been forbidden. Here’s a Google map link to where this Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods is going up. According to CultureMap, the closest existing grocery store is an HEB at Scott and Old Spanish Trail 1.2 miles away. That’s not that far, but if you live south of Corder it could get to be a bit of a hike, especially if you depend on public transportation. Be that as it may, I think it’s a good thing to encourage this kind of development in parts of the city that don’t have it regardless of whether there are any associated health benefits to it. I do hope someone is going to follow up with a study, however, because if there really are health benefits we as a country should pursue this kind of development more aggressively, and if there aren’t we should at least be careful to not make dishonest arguments in favor of it.

Sriracha post-mortem

The Motley Fool wonders if State Rep. Jason Villalba should get the credit for the resolution of the Great Sriracha Dispute of 2014.

In early January, Texas state representative Jason Villalba made a public invitation to David Tran to pack up and move Huy Fong to Texas. In his announcement, Villalba contrasted “excessive government interference” by “government bureaucrats” in California to Texas’ “low regulations and limited government interference.”

This could have come across as one-off political grandstanding, but Villalba didn’t let go of the issue. His pitch later expanded to include the notion of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley as a possible pepper-farm location—despite the fact that the valley and Dallas are 500 miles apart, which would hike Huy Fong’s transport costs considerably. And on May 12, he brought a delegation of state legislators and Texas officials to Irwindale for a high-profile tour of Huy Fong’s plant and a private meeting with Tran.

Whether or not Tran was seriously considering relocating or expanding to Texas, the visit and the publicity it generated gave him leverage in his conflict with the city. And it gave GOP leaders both in Texas and in California a national platform to criticize what they saw as shortcomings in the Golden State’s business climate.

The dispute’s endgame began Tuesday, when representatives from Democratic governor Jerry Brown’s office held a private meeting with Tran and city officials. Wednesday night, Irwindale’s council voted to drop the issues.

Whether that settles the matter for residents living near the plant won’t be clear until this summer when the pepper harvest comes in for processing. But for now, it looks like Huy Fong will stay put and its most popular sauce will keep flowing.

This was of course a local dispute, one that had nothing to do with state regulations, and the leading suitor for a relocated Huy Fong factory was surely elsewhere in California. Be that as it may, California Gov. Jerry Brown wasn’t taking any chances.

Afraid of losing a few hundred jobs and the world’s best hot sauce, Los Angeles officials urged Brown’s office to take action. The Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. began reaching out early this year to try to get the two sides talking, an adviser with knowledge of the meetings said.

Brown’s economic development team got the South Coast Air Quality Management District to evaluate Irwindale’s air — they found no significant odorous problems — and arranged for the mayor of Irwindale, Mark Breceda, and a city council member to visit the factory and begin making peace.

Leslie McBride, deputy director of business investment services in the economic development office, represented the Brown administration during the walk-through on Tuesday. Huy Fong showed city officials their new filtration system upgrades, which should help mitigate future air quality problems.

Brown was briefed several times on the progress of negotiations, the adviser said, though the governor’s office didn’t offer any specific incentives.

This LA Times story has more detail on the backstage activity. Honestly, I think this was more of a communications problem than anything else. For whatever the reason, the city of Irwindale and David Tran dug in their heels as the rhetoric escalated, and it wasn’t until the cooler heads from Gov. Brown’s office intervened, and the reality of maybe actually turning the business completely upside down as represented by the arrival of Team Villalba seeped in, that everyone came to their senses and worked out a resolution that should have been obvious six months ago. You can give credit to Brown, and if there is a real expansion opportunity in the future – still no word on that as far as I can tell – you can give plenty of kudos to Villalba, but from where I sit this was always how this should have ended up. Stuff does happen sometimes – ask a Cleveland Browns fan, or a Baltimore Colts fan, for two such examples – but what really mattered in the end was that the two sides finally started talking to, and listening to, each other. Isn’t that usually how it goes?

Sriracha dispute settled

The City of Irwindale’s long national nightmare is finally over.

Sriracha’s spicy relationship with the City Council cooled off a bit Wednesday after officials unanimously dismissed a lawsuit and public nuisance declaration against manufacturer Huy Fong Foods.

The standoff between the city and Sriracha creator David Tran began in October when the city filed a lawsuit against his iconic company. The battle sparked fears among Sriracha fans there would be a global shortage of the popular condiment and its bottle with the tell-tale green cap.

An informal meeting Tuesday between Tran and city officials, accompanied by a written statement from Tran, provided the council the assurance it needed that Huy Fong will address residents’ odor complaints.

“We forged a relationship. Let’s keep that going,” City Councilman Julian Miranda said Wednesday.

[…]

Before the vote to dismiss the public nuisance order, Irwindale Chamber of Commerce President Marlene Carney gave a presentation to the council announcing the chamber will launch a marketing campaign “to talk about the positives of doing business” in Irwindale.

Tran on Tuesday credited representatives from Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development for bringing the city officials to his factory.

Residents complained last fall the fumes seeping from the factory during the chile grinding season burned their eyes and throats and forced them to stay indoors.

The company recently installed stronger filters on its rooftop air filtration system, which Tran said he tested with pepper spray.

It is unknown if the new filters will be adequate until the company begins to process chiles, which is expected to begin in August.

“At the commencement of this year’s chile harvest season, if the air filtration system does not perform well, then Huy Fong Foods will make the necessary changes in order to better the system right away,” Tran wrote in a letter to the council.

With the settlement of this dispute, there’s now no impetus for Huy Fong to consider relocation, so this should bring the entire sriracha saga to a close. There may yet be expansion possibilities, but the prospect of moving the manufacturing facility, which never really progressed the “vague threat” status, is no longer operable. We can all now resume our normal lives.

I will say, it’s a bit mind-boggling that Huy Fong and the city of Irwindale could have had such a breakdown in communication. You would think this was the sort of routine disagreement that could have been resolved with some ordinary conversations and negotiations, instead of turning into international news. David Tran says in this LA Times story that he “fears that he’s lost market share because he has been forced to reveal so much about his production process”. Maybe, but I think he’s also discovered just how strong his brand is, and by all indications his business is continuing to grow. I’m pretty sure this will all be a net positive for Huy Fong in the end, if it isn’t already.

Finally, regarding that expansion possibility, a Google News search for “Jason Villalba”, the State Rep that has spearheaded the wooing of Huy Fong shows nothing new since his much-ballyhooed visit earlier this month. If there really is something to this possibility, I figure it’ll get mentioned as part of whatever ceremonial recognition of the peace accord with Irwindale takes place. If nothing like that happens, I figure it’s at best a long-term, not-yet-on-the-road-map idea. We’ll see.

Eat ’em all up

It sure would be nice to think that we could solve our invasive species problems by eating them all, but we probably can’t.

Would you want this for dinner?

It seems like a simple proposition: American lakes, rivers and offshore waters are filling up with destructive fish and crustaceans originally from other parts of the world, many of them potential sources of food.

So why not control these invasive populations by getting people to eat them?

The idea has gained momentum recently from the lionfish, which invaded the Gulf of Mexico but was successfully marketed to restaurants and today appears to be in decline.

But businesses and scientists have struggled to repeat this apparent triumph with other species. Some, such as Asian carp, are not appetizing to Americans. Others, like feral hogs, reproduce too quickly to make a dent. And then there’s the question of whether turning them into sought-after cuisine undermines the larger goal of eliminating them.

“Eating invasive species is not a silver bullet,” said Laura Huffman, the Nature Conservancy’s director in Texas. But it can still be “a way to get people engaged in the topic and in the solution.”

The lionfish, a striped saltwater species with a flowing mane of venomous spines, is native to the Indo-Pacific Ocean and was first spotted in parts of the Gulf and off the East Coast a little more than 10 years ago. The skilled predators damage reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks — or larger lionfish.

People soon learned that beneath the lionfish’s spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is perfect for ceviche, taco filler or as an alternative to lobster. After a few years of intense fishing and brisk fillet sales, the population is dropping.

But similar efforts targeting feral hogs, Asian carp and the Himalayan blackberry have been far less successful.

This subject comes up a lot, mostly in the context of feral hogs. Indeed, two years ago Texas Monthly proposed a culinary solution to our invasive species problem. It’s worked pretty well for lionfish and giant prawns, but some invasives just aren’t that appetizing, while the aforementioned hogs just reproduce too much to make an appreciable dent in their population that way. Plus, as the story notes, turning invasive species into a cash crop provides for some perverse economic incentives, and likely isn’t a net winner. Make some lemonade if you can, but don’t expect it to be more than that.

The other reason why Huy Fong won’t move to Texas

In a word, water.

Huy Fong Foods, which is staying put for now, is different from Toyota and other companies that have recently been wooed or moved to Texas. It is an agribusiness, relying on thousands of tons of local fresh chiles to operate. And in rapidly growing Texas, where the population is approaching 90 percent urban, some farming advocates complain that agriculture is being left behind in the scramble to accommodate growth. That is especially true when it comes to water policy, water planning specialists say.

“One of the dominant water management strategies for meeting future water supply needs is a conversion away from agriculture” in Texas and most of the West, said Bill Mullican, a former state water planner in Texas who now writes plans for nearby states.

With that in mind, he said, “if you’re going to bring agribusiness to Texas, I would think that you want to focus on those activities that were not water-dependent or at least heavily water-dependent.”

[…]

Most of the stories of Texas agriculture recently have been about high-profile closings and economic losses in the midst of drought, including the loss of a Cargill beef processing plant that employed more than 2,000 people in the Panhandle and the decimation of the Gulf Coast rice processing industry.

Some legislators have suggested that certain crops should not be grown in Texas at all. As the reservoirs that supply both Austin and rice farmers downstream continue to shrink, Austin-area lawmakers argue that growing rice requires too much water, and that those who live and do business alongside the reservoirs have more economic muscle. Along the Brazos River basin, Texas regulators prioritized cities and power plants over rice growers when the river’s users were asked to cut back.

“You already hear in the political realm, ‘Well, agriculture uses 95 percent of the water. We just need to turn the irrigation wells off,’” said Darren Hudson, an agricultural economist at Texas Tech University. “Those conflicts are going to just intensify.”

Villalba has suggested that the red jalapeño peppers needed to supply Huy Fong could be grown in the Rio Grande Valley. But the water rights system there, the result of a court case from the 1950s, prioritizes municipal use over agriculture.

“Agriculture is basically the user of last resort. They get what water is not for cities,” said Ray Prewett, the executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, which is based in the border city of Mission. Even before the drought, agriculture in the region had suffered because of dwindling water supplies and urbanization, Prewett said. Farmers have found it more profitable to sell their water rights to growing cities, and to shift to dryland farming, which pays more in crop insurance.

Water for cities is also much more highly valued than irrigation water, according to the 2012 state water plan. The plan forecasts a shortfall of 260,000 acre-feet of agricultural water in the Rio Grande region by 2060, resulting in a loss of $48 million and 655 jobs. The water deficit for municipal users in the region is slightly above that, but its estimated impact is much greater — $2.2 billion and 54,000 jobs lost.

[…]

While chiles are a relatively drought-tolerant crop, requiring far less water than rice, other issues the agricultural industry faces could create problems. Ben Villalon, a well-known horticulturalist from Texas A&M University dubbed “Dr. Pepper” for his expertise in growing chiles, said chiles are largely gone from Texas because of higher labor costs and the difficulty of finding farm workers. Most Texas Republicans favor immigration policies that could further tighten the farm labor supply.

“It’s a sinking boat,” Villalon said. “They’ll never make it. The money’s just not there. It’s not profitable anymore.” Huy Fong’s pepper supplier has used mechanization and other techniques to cut costs, and in 2011, chile yields per acre were almost 10 times higher in California than in Texas.

See here for prior Sriracha blogging. I don’t really have a point to make about this, I just thought it was a useful perspective that hasn’t exactly been prominent amid the drama and the flood of Texas-versus-California stories. Besides, there’s nothing new to report since the Texas delegation visited the plant last week – the city of Irwindale still hasn’t taken action that might force Huy Fong’s hand, and may yet delay that decision again for at least another week – so here’s a picture of Rep. Jason Villalba in a hairnet to keep you amused until there is something new to note.

The Sriracha delegation arrives in California

Can you feel the excitement?

The self-styled “sriracha delegation” of Texas lawmakers heads to Irwindale, Calif., on Monday to woo the maker of a popular hot sauce to the Lone Star State. And the makeup of the delegation makes clear that bringing sriracha back to Texas is a spicy topic for both parties.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas — who has led the charge to bring the Huy Fong Foods sriracha factory to Texas since residents in its current host city in California complained of itchy eyes and unbearably spicy smells — will be joined by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who represents the district where most of the chili peppers needed for the sauce are grown. San Antonio or a nearby city could be a good fit for the factory’s location, Villalba and Uresti have said.

State Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, will also be in the delegation. Vo speaks Vietnamese, the native language of Huy Fong Foods founder and chief executive David Tran. Representatives from the offices of Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples will also be attending.

Tran has said he is not ready to make a final decision about moving his business. Huy Fong Foods has been in California since it was founded in 1980, and the Irwindale facility relies on a single pepper grower for the chilis used in its famous sauce. California congressmen and other politicians have risen to Huy Fong’s defense. And the Irwindale City Council has backed off of its plan to deem the factory a public nuisance.

See here for all my previous Sriracha-blogging. David Tran may say he’s not made a final decision about moving his business, but he sort of has.

Since the rumble with Irwindale, almost two dozen cities have urged Tran to relocate to their part of the country. For a while, he actually considered it.

City attorney Fred Galante says the problem can be fixed and he hopes it doesn’t come to a move.

“We continue to try to work this out informally,” he says.

And after thinking it over, Tran has decided to stay in his Irwindale factory. He’s lived in California for more than 30 years, and he says he’s not planning to move.

But he might open another site, outside Southern California. An additional location would allow him to keep up with the ever-growing demand for Sriracha, and develop an added source for peppers, in case climate change threatens his current supply.

The Trib confirms this, and point out some obstacles to Texas as a viable Sriracha location:

Tran said Monday the odor controversy hasn’t convinced him to leave California. He told reporters forcefully that he has no intention to move his business, which has been in Irwindale since 2010 and made $80 million in gross revenue last year.

[…]

Actually moving or expanding into Texas wouldn’t be easy, though, for the company. Tran works with a single pepper grower, Underwood Farms, and expects to get 58,000 tons of fresh chile peppers this season. In 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas produced only 8,000 tons of chile peppers.

Crop yields in California and New Mexico are also much higher than they are in Texas — Underwood Farms can grow more than 10 times as many chiles on the same amount of land as Texas growers did in 2011. And most of the chile peppers grown in Texas are green; Huy Fong exclusively uses red chile peppers.

Craig Underwood, of Underwood Farms, said his business has produced all of Huy Fong’s chile peppers for 25 years. The company accounts for 75 percent of his revenue. A move to Texas would also be difficult because the weather patterns are very different, he said, and could make growing the chile peppers challenging.

Still, Tran said, Texas is a more viable state than most others because it’s possible to grow chiles there. While other states have expressed interest in his business, Tran said he has only had in-depth negotations with Texas officials, and he likes what he knows of the state so far.

“First-come, first-serve,” he told reporters, grinning.

So expansion is a possible option, and Texas – specifically, San Antonio – is in play for that. It’s too early to say how realistic that is. What is clear is that Tran and Huy Fong Foods have a very close relationship with their existing suppliers.

The jalapeño peppers that will be ground later this year at an embattled Irwindale factory and pureed into the red-hot chili sauce known as Sriracha are now being planted.

Wednesday morning in a Ventura County field off Highway 126, workers unloaded cartons of pepper plants from a Santa Maria nursery and then loaded up a tranplantation machine, which drops the plants into the soil.

Craig Underwood, 72, whose family has been farming in Ventura County for four generations, has been growing the jalapeño peppers that fill the bottles with the iconic rooster on the front and topped with bright-green lids for 25 years. That first year, he called Huy Fong Foods CEO David Tran and asked him if he could grow 50 acres of peppers for him. This year, Underwood will plant 2,000 acres, with plans to harvest 2,200 acres next year.

The international demand for Sriracha sauce has caused Underwood to double the acreage of his crops and expand his operation into Kern County.

“It’s amazing that the sauce has gotten such attention and it has such a cult following. Who would have guessed?” Underwood said.

[…]

Underwood said he and Tran have a special relationship. While most processors are trying to get the grower that will sell them the product for the cheapest amount of money, Tran cares about quality.

Tran insists on peppers that are bright red and have good flavor. He has even brought a taste-tester to Underwood’s fields.

“I don’t know how she did it,” Underwood said, eyes widening at the thought of the heat.

Peppers are always on Tran’s mind.

Underwood said at Tran’s daughter’s wedding, Tran pulled him outside on the balcony to talk about the crop.

“He’s very focused,” Underwood said of Tran.

Underwood will be present at the meetings Rep. Villalba and his posse will have with Tran, and he says in the story that he doesn’t think Tran will move. Who are we to argue with that?

Sriracha for San Antonio?

State Rep. Jason Villalba will finally make his pilgrimage to California to visit Huy Fong Foods and try to convince them to pick up stakes and move to Texas.

State and city officials are hoping to woo the CEO of Huy Fong Foods Inc. into moving or expanding production of Sriracha, the company’s increasingly popular spicy Asian sauce, to San Antonio.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, is leading a delegation of Texas officials May 12 to meet with CEO David Tran and tour the company’s embattled factory near Los Angeles.

A California judge forced the company to shut down some production after complaints that fumes emitted from the facility caused asthma, nosebleeds and sinus irritation.

“These talks are still very preliminary and we haven’t drilled down on site-selection yet, but with it’s proximity to the Rio Grande Valley and the economic infrastructure to support this type of factory, San Antonio is high on the list,” Villalba said.

Mario Hernandez, president of San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, said the organization reached out two months ago to Tran, who indicated an expansion is more likely than a full-fledged relocation to the Alamo City, which would cost millions.

“We would welcome the opportunity on a complete relocation, but a more likely scenario is future expansion,” Hernandez said.

San Antonio is an ideal location for production of the spicy condiment because it is close to the Rio Grande Valley, a region with a large agriculture industry that could easily grow chilies for the product, Villalba said.

Because the chilies must be transported to a factory for production soon after being harvested, San Antonio, the largest city in South Texas, logistically would be a prime location for a manufacturing plant.

[…]

The Dallas Republican received an invitation from Tran last week and will be joined by state Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, who speaks fluent Vietnamese; Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples; and officials from Gov. Rick Perry’s and Attorney General Greg Abbott’s offices.

“In one of the fastest-growing areas of the country there is an insatiable need for jobs of all types,” said state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who was invited by Villalba but couldn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict.

See here for all my previous Sriracha blogging. You have to admire Rep. Villalba for being a team player – it was originally the city of Denton that made a move on Huy Fong, but despite being in Rep. Villalba’s back yard, he’s going with the more practical possibility. I still don’t think Huy Fong is going to move its operations to Texas – if it moves anywhere, it’ll be elsewhere in California – but expansion is an intriguing possibility, one I don’t recall seeing mentioned before. If that really is on the table, it’s an attainable goal and would be a very nice coup.

Here’s a bit more on the expansion possibility from Forbes:

The city of Irwindale voted unanimously [last] Wednesday to table a vote on a resolution until the next meeting, delaying a final decision for another two weeks. If the city council had cemented their vote, the factory would have had until July 22 to stop releasing the peppery fumes that residents were complaining of suffering from heartburn, asthma and nosebleeds.

But aside from the meeting, Tran has given little indication that he is seriously considering moving out of California, where his business has operated for the last 34 years.

“We have never had any issues, so moving was never discussed,” Tran told Forbes. “But why would we need to move if we do not have harmful odors?”

One deterrent for the company to move is that the chili peppers used for the company’s sauces are geographically closer to the factory and must be immediately processed after being picked. But Tran doesn’t see either the proximity to the pepper farms or the city council’s decision to be the end of Huy Fong Foods.

“We could grow in the state [of Texas] if need be,” Tran said. “But after seeing the supporters yesterday, I don’t feel alone, so I need to try to stay here instead of relocating. There is, however, the possibility of expansion to other locations due to growing sales.”

See here for more on Irwindale City Council’s actions. I find it hard to believe the two sides won’t get this worked out. Given that Villalba and crew will be in town two days before Council votes on that resolution, perhaps his visit will serve as incentive towards a resolution.

Even if the Sriracha factory moves, that doesn’t mean it will move to Texas

There’s a lot of competition for them.

After months of heated negotiations with the city of Irwindale over the smell of Sriracha hot sauce, Huy Fong Foods Chief Executive David Tran is appealing to a higher power: a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) visited the hot sauce factory Tuesday and spoke with Tran about potentially relocating to the San Fernando Valley. Cardenas is one of dozens of politicians nationwide who have publicly invited Sriracha to locate within their jurisdiction. Offers have poured in from Alabama, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico and West Virginia.

Last week, Tran signaled his intent to consider relocating his factory and invited potential suitors to pay a visit. Cardenas was one of the first. His own experience of the odor was pleasant, Cardenas said.

“Full disclosure, they weren’t in chile grinding mode…but it was a mild smell in my opinion,” Cardenas said.

[…]

Cardenas and Tran also discussed some federal tax incentives for companies that export a certain proportion of their product overseas – which Huy Fong Foods does – but they did not identify any sites for relocation or discuss any specifics of a deal.

“There’s lots of places in Socal, and Tran provides more than 200 jobs making a nationally and internationally recognized product,” Cardenas said.

See here for the background. Rep. Jason Villalba can talk all he wants about what a great climate for bidness we have in Texas – he can even pay a visit out there and say those things in person – but that only gets you so far. There are a lot of logistical reasons for Huy Fong to stay put, or at least stay nearby, and it’s not like California doesn’t have a card or two it can play. Also, and I know this will be hard to believe, some people prefer to live in states that aren’t Texas. I know, I don’t get it either, but there it is. Bottom line, if I were a Vegas oddsmaker, I’d have “Huy Fong does not relocate anywhere” as the favorite, with “Huy Fong moves to some other location in California” as the runnerup. Sorry, Denton.

Sorry, the Sriracha factory will not be coming to Texas

The ongoing battle between the makers of Sriracha sauce and their hometown flared up again last week.

The Irwindale City Council has voted unanimously to declare the spicy smell of Sriracha hot sauce production a public nuisance.

Once the council adopts an expected official resolution at its next meeting, hot sauce maker Huy Fong Foods will have about 90 days to mitigate the odor, which residents say burns their eyes and throats at certain times of day.

The 4-0 vote during a Wednesday night hearing came despite assurances from company attorney John Tate that Huy Fong Foods planned to submit an action plan within 10 days and have the smell fixed by June 1.

Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District have been performing tests at the facility and have offered to help the company craft a mitigation plan. Although they would not release the test results, AQMD officials indicated that the smell issues could be resolved with active carbon filters — a technology the company has used in the past.

“The City Council is determined to assert its authority regardless of the status of the odor remediation efforts,” Tate said.

[…]

No demonstrators showed up Wednesday night. But state Sen. Ed Hernandez sent a representative to deliver a statement, calling Huy Fong Foods one of the “shining stars” of the San Gabriel Valley’s vibrant business community and offering to help the sauce maker find a home in a neighboring city.

“I ask that the city of Irwindale reject this inflammatory and unnecessary ‘public nuisance’ designation and constructively work with Huy Fong Foods to resolve these issues,” Hernandez said in a statement.

Councilman Albert Ambriz said that the city wants to keep the hot sauce factory.

“I respect the fact that they are here. But they know there’s a problem and it needs to be fixed,” Ambriz said.

The fuss is basically a tempest in a Rooster Sauce bottle.

But company owner David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who founded Huy Fong Foods in 1980, has insisted the odor concerns are overblown — and indeed there are signs the controversy may be as manufactured as Sriracha itself.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which includes Irwindale, has never issued a citation to the company and Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the district, says that many of the 70 odor complaints the district had received as of April 7 came from just a handful of households. The first person to file a formal complaint was the relative of a city official, according to court documents. Atwood says inspectors from the district visited the Huy Fong Foods factory and determined the company was not in violation of current air quality regulations. If a smell is bad enough that the district would take action, he says, “You’re going to get dozens if not hundreds of complaints.”

That hasn’t happened yet, but the factory remains in danger of being shut down. Irwindale officials have even said they may have the right to install air-filtering equipment inside the factory and bill Huy Fong Foods for the expense.

Some locals seem baffled by all the fuss. Tania Bueno, who owns a salon a few blocks from the factory, told TIME in February she’s never detected an odor from the Huy Fong Foods factory. “None of my clients have mentioned any smells.” Tran recently opened his doors for public tours to allow Irwindale residents to decide for themselves how strong the smell is.

But then maybe it’s more than that.

After a months-long battle with the city of Irwindale over complaints about a spicy odor, Sriracha sauce creator David Tran said Wednesday he is now seriously considering moving his factory to another location.

Tran responded Wednesday to the politicians and business leaders from 10 states and multiple cities in California that have offered to host the Sriracha factory. He invited them to tour the facility in Irwindale and decide if their communities would complain about the odors that arise during production.

Tran stressed he has not decided whether to move, but would like to explore his options.

The Irwindale City Council voted unanimously to designate the factory a public nuisance last Wednesday despite promises from the saucemaker that they would submit an action plan and fix the smell by June 1.

Tran said he fears the city won’t accept any solution he proposes. If Irwindale residents continue to complain even after smell-mitigation technology is installed, Sriracha’s legal troubles could have no end, Tran said.

“[City officials] tell you one thing, but think another,” Tran said in an interview at Huy Fong Foods on Wednesday. “I don’t want to sit here and wait to die.”

Irwindale City Attorney Fred Galante said he was confused and disappointed by Tran’s actions. Irwindale officials just want an action plan to be submitted, and Galante said that Tran has not proposed any solutions for the city to reject.

“This seems very extreme,” Galante said. “It’s disappointing giving that [air quality officials] have explained that there are readily available solutions.”

[…]

Relocating Sriracha production would not be simple. Tran has been working with a single pepper grower in Ventura County for years, and the businesses have shaped their operations around each other, expanding in tandem. Since peppers for Sriracha hot sauce must be fresh ground on the day they are harvested, Tran said he’ll have to find a new grower if he moves, as well as replace or relocate 60 to 200 employees.

Tran said his first choice is to stay in Irwindale, but the city government’s actions have created an uncertain business climate.

“I have had the bad luck to move into a city with a government that acts like a local king,” Tran said.

See here, here, and here for the background. State Rep. Jason Villalba has been beseeching Huy Fung Foods to consider moving to Texas, where we care a lot less about such niceties as clean air, and he’s back on Facebook pitching his message again. Until this week, his message had not been received by Huy Fung, but now Villalba may get his chance.

Villalba says he’s received a call from the Sriracha maker about setting up a meeting “as soon as possible.” Says the state rep, “We’re assembling our team now and getting ready to go to California.” That meeting will likely take place in early May, he says, and include Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples and other state politicians.

“We’re pretty excited,” says Villalba.

Well, good luck with that, but as the title of this post suggests, I remain highly skeptical. Not being near their supplier of peppers would be a significant change to their business, and likely a significant cost increase. Lots of other groups are lining up to make their pitch as well, including other cities close by in California. Anything is possible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Still seeking Sriracha for Texas

State Rep. Jason Villalba has a dream.

Rep. Jason Villalba wants to move production of his favorite spicy condiment to the North Texas area.

A plant in Dallas, Richardson, Plano, or another Texas community could help bring jobs to the state, he said.

Citing “greater opportunities for success” thanks to Texas’ business-friendly environment, the Dallas Republican sent a letter to Huy Fong Foods, the makers of the chili and garlic hot sauce Sriracha.

In the letter, he offered to organize a delegation of Texas dignitaries to talk about the benefits of moving to Texas.

“As a public official and a corporate attorney for small businesses, I am extremely troubled by excessive government interference in the operations of private, job-creating businesses like Huy Fong Foods,” Villalba said in the letter. “You have worked too hard and have helped too many people to let government bureaucrats shut down your thriving business.”

[…]

Villalba said if the plant were to move to Texas and if complaints were filed, “we’d have to address that.”

“We’d want to make sure we can continue to create a strong and vibrant economy and we’re very safe with the companies we do have here,” he said.

That’s in regard to the environmental concerns that temporarily halted production back in November. Hard to imagine Texas being any harder on the environmental regulatory front than California, which the Huy Fong folks may see as a plus or a minus. In the meantime, Villalba’s entreaty comes as the hot sauce makers are at the end of a thirty day moratorium on shipping their product out of state “to ensure that the contents of the uncooked sauces are free of microorganisms, according to a California Department of Public Health order.” Again, whether a Texas approach to such things would work in Huy Fong’s favor or not is open to debate, but moving here could cause other problems.

Huy Fong has been buying peppers from the same Southern California farm for decades. The peppers arrive at the plant within hours of being harvested and are used quickly after that.

It’s all about the local sourcing, y’all. I respect Rep. Villalba for chasing a dream, but good luck solving that.

Big Brew

I like the sound of this.

beer

For three days in October, the [George R. Brown] convention center will host Big Brew, a major new festival that aims to tap into the region’s burgeoning craft-beer scene by putting 1,000 beers out for public sampling, along with seminars on what you’re drinking and where it comes from.

To satisfy Houstonians’ growing passion for pairing food with beer, some of the biggest chefs in town are lining up 40 local restaurants for an evening of culinary improvisation.

“We really do think we can make this a beer-tourist destination,” said Big Brew organizer Clifton McDerby of Food & Vine Time Productions.

[…]

McDerby said the sampling hall during Big Brew will feature 1,000 craft beers. A selection that large would rank among the larger ones in beer festivals nationally, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association industry group.

“It’s a goal, but it’s a goal that we will reach,” McDerby said.

The main tastings will be preceded by two smaller events, a food-and-beer pairing and an exclusively Texas tasting, on the evenings of Oct. 23 and 24, respectively. All will be inside the Brown Convention Center.

McDerby said there also will be a downtown pub crawl, and additional events in the vicinity are likely to be added.

The pairing event will feature food selections from 40 Houston restaurants, 29 of which have signed up.

McDerby said a culinary committee led by noted restaurateurs Robert Del Grande of RDG & Bar Annie, Michael Cordúa (Américas , Artista) and Randy Evans (Haven) is developing the list.

The Texas tasting will feature 40 in-state breweries exclusively.

I’m thinking this was Mayor Parker’s favorite press conference of all time.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker on Tuesday turned a public announcement about a new beer festival into a toast to the city’s industriousness and traditions of hospitality.

“Houston has always been a place for entrepreneurs,” she said, adding craft brewers to a legacy of dynamic business owners who stimulate the local economy.

“Today we celebrate an industry and a city on the rise,” she said, raising a glass of Houston-brewed beer from Saint Arnold Brewing Co. “Here’s to our city, and here’s to beer.”

I’ll drink to that. The festival will run from October 23-25, and tickets go on sale on February 17. They’re limiting sales to 11,000 tix for the main event, so I’d advise buying yours quickly, not to mention perhaps planning for a vacation day on the Friday. The event webpage is here, the Facebook page is here, and a photo gallery from the press conference is here. CultureMap has more.

Craft beer: Still good for your economy

Yet another study says so.

Texas ranks second only to California in the economic impact derived from craft brewing, a report from the Brewers Association says.

This burgeoning class of smaller, independently owned craft breweries, along with their distributors, retailers and bar/restaurant workers, added $2.3 billion to the Texas economy in 2012, the report says.

That’s part of an estimated $33.9 billion national number cited in the report, which the industry group said measures “the total impact of beer brewed by craft brewers as it moves through the three-tier system (breweries, wholesalers and retailers), as well as all non-beer products that brewpub restaurants sell.”

The Brewers Association said the nation’s 2,000-plus craft breweries and brewpub restaurants sold 13.2 million barrels of beer with a retail value of nearly $12 billion during 2012.

[…]

The Texas Craft Brewers Guild hailed the Brewers Association findings as confirming its own assessment last year that craft brewing could be upward of a $5.6 billion industry here by 2020.

The guild noted that Texas ranked fourth among the states in the number of craft-related jobs and third in “labor income produced from craft breweries through direct and indirect economic impact.”

It also found positive news in the state’s No. 34 ranking for per-capita economic impact.

“This finding clearly demonstrates … there remains significant room for growth for the Texas craft beer industry,” the guild said in a statement.

You can see the study here, and the Texas Craft Brewers Guild’s statement is here. The TCBG has done its own study with similar findings. You can see it with your own eyes – craft beers are on the menu at restaurants all over town, local microbrewers are expanding, and as a general rule new startups do a lot of hiring as they expand. I don’t think the market is anywhere near saturated yet. Keep on keeping on, y’all.

Karbach set to expand

Good for them.

Fast-growing Karbach Brewing Co. intends next year to build a new brewery that will give it the capacity to make three times as much beer as it has made in 2013 and, eventually, several times that.

The $15 million project, to be announced Tuesday, will begin with a 1.2-acre tract adjacent to the current brewery at 2032 Karbach. The 19,000-square-foot, two-story facility will include a public tap room and kitchen that will be open daily and space upstairs that will be available for special events.

It also will include a brewhouse from German manufacturer Ziemann that is four times as large as the existing one, modern storage areas for grain and yeast and a laboratory for quality control testing.

Brewmaster Eric Warner said he expects to be brewing test batches in the new place next October or November and producing beer for sale in early 2015. He said stronger-than-expected growth has put Karbach on an “aggressive timeline” to get the facility ready to keep pace with demand.

“It’s just nuts,” Warner, a well-known figure in craft brewing before he arrived in Houston from Colorado 21/2 years ago, said of the red-hot market for craft beer here. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Karbach’s growth is rare even in the exploding craft segment, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association trade group. With expected production of 19,000 barrels for 2013, Karbach is in the midsize group that starts at 15,001 barrels and goes up to 6 million.

Of the nation’s 2,600 craft breweries and brewpubs, only 120 are in that category. Herz said it typically takes startup breweries much longer to reach that status.

[…]

Warner said Karbach considered going outside the city limits, where property is less expensive, but determined Houston is the better environment for a brewery. As land became available around the existing plant, the decision was easy, he said.

Preliminary renderings show a handsome brick façade and steel building facing Dacoma with outdoor seating and an upstairs balcony, with views of the brewing and fermentation areas.

The front part of the downstairs will be largely for the public, who will be able to purchase beer for consumption on site thanks to recent changes in state law. Warner said the food menu won’t be extensive but will include items made with locally sourced ingredients.

Yes, another success of the craft beer legislation that finally passed the Legislature this time around. We’ll be celebrating that victory – and, I hope, adding on to it – for many years. I’m glad to hear that Karbach decided to stay within the city limits, too. I look forward to seeing the new place. Best of luck to them with construction.

Working to solve the food desert problem

This is a success story on two levels.

A number of area grocery stores like Jim’s Super might not be around if it were not for a little-known local Vietnamese immigrant family.

John Vuong took over his first store in 1994, and his siblings, in-laws and he now operate 11 locations that are almost all in low-income, under-served areas.

With the help of a city of Houston initiative expected to launch soon, he hopes to open his first built-from-the-ground-up store next year.

It, too, would be in a low-income area, near Loop 610 South and Scott.

The idea of owning a new store thrills him, he said. His existing supermarkets are like “old used cars” in constant need of repair.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who is on the city’s grocery access task force, said approval of Vuong’s application has not been finalized, but he is confident it will be accepted and serve as the pilot for possible future projects in the Third and Fifth Wards, the East Side, South Side and Sunnyside.

For a family living in an area designated a “food desert,” where the only food source might be fast food or a convenience store, getting fresh meat, produce and other staples is a burden, especially if you have no car, said Allison Karpyn, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Food Trust, dedicated to bringing affordable nutritious food to more communities.

A food desert is defined as an area where there is no grocery store within a mile.

About 26 percent of Harris County residents lack access to healthy food, and the majority are in low-income areas, said Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at the University of Houston. That’s slightly higher than the national average.

[…]

Soon after he was elected to City Council in 2010, Costello attended a meeting on affordable housing in Sunnyside. He recalled, “A 75-year-old woman stood up and said she grew up there, ‘and to this day I still don’t have a grocery store in my neighborhood.’ ”

Costello contacted the Food Trust for ideas and learned the nonprofit was already studying Houston. It released a report that year highlighting the need for more supermarkets in the city’s lower-income areas and the connection between the absence of such stores and diet-related disease.

The Food Trust held meetings with city leaders, members of the supermarket industry, including Grocers Supply, and community development and children’s health experts. Grocers Supply recommended Vuong as the ideal person to open a new store, Arnold said.

Vuong is asking for a little more than $1 million from the city and will invest a minimum of $2.4 million of his own money.

The cost of the initial investment would be too high for him to undertake on his own. The economics wouldn’t make sense, said Lance Gilliam, a partner at WSG Real Estate Advisors who served on the task force, because grocery stores have such slim profit margins, especially those in low-income areas.

The city is reviewing Vuong’s application, and Costello anticipates the city, its Housing and Community Development Department and the Houston Housing Finance Corp. will greenlight the proposal by year’s end.

See here for some background, though unfortunately that Food Trust report on Houston appears to be offline now. John Vuong is a classic American success story on his own, as an immigrant from Vietnam who built a thriving grocery business in traditionally underserved parts of town. The fact that he is seeking to expand on that success, and that the city is willing to partner with him to help improve the availability of fresh food in low income neighborhoods adds an extra dimension to his success. I wish them all the best in this venture.

Sriracha update

For the rooster sauce lovers in my audience, which I figure is most of you.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Tuesday ordered a Sriracha hot sauce plant in Irwindale be partially shut down in response to odor complaints from nearby residents.

Judge Robert H. O’Brien ruled in favor of the city and ordered sauce maker Huy Fong Foods to cease any kind of operations that could be causing the odors and make immediate changes that would help mitigate them.

The injunction does not stop the company operating or using the property entirely, or specify the types of actions that are required.

[…]

It is unclear what the ruling means for next year’s supply of Sriracha hot sauce. The factory harvests and grinds chilis for three months out of the year, and the grinding of this year’s chilis has been completed.

But the mixing and the bottling of the sauce occurs on an ongoing basis. [Irwindale City Attorney Fred] Galante said he did not know if the injunction applies to those aspects of production.

The city’s goal is not to stop the production of the sauce, Galante said.

“We’re going to try to keep having a conversation with Huy Fong and working out some collaborative way to test and make sure the odor problems are addressed,” he said.

The case could still go to trial, but Galante said that the city hopes the matter can be resolved out of court.

See here for the background. It’s not the Srirachapocalypse that some had feared, but you still might want to stock up a bit, just in case.

Friday random ten: Leftovers

In the spirit of the weekend, ten songs about food.

1. Hotdogs and Hamburgers – John Mellencamp
2. Watermelon Time – Marcia Ball
3. Col. Josh’s Homestyle Barbecue – Asylum Street Spankers
4. Ode To The Lima Bean – Flying Fish Sailors
5. Corn Dogs – The Bobs
6. Tastes Like Chicken – Austin Lounge Lizards
7. Too Much Barbecue – Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows
8. Junk Food – Patty Larkin
9. Hot Soup – Lager Rhythms
10. Belle Banana Pancakes – Jack Johnson

May your fridge and your belly be full.

Recycle that cooking oil

A public service announcement from the city.

The holidays are upon us and that means cooking turkeys, hams and other foods that either require cooking oils to prepare or that generate a surplus of grease when cooked.

Used cooking oils and greases, when disposed down the kitchen drain, cool, harden and clog the pipes. Diluting it in hot soapy water is NOT a solution. You can avoid possible clogged drains for the holidays by putting excess grease in a disposable container and put it in the trash or drop-off at a place that recycles and turns it into a usable product, such as biodiesel.

In conjunction with the City of Houston Solid Waste Department, the following locations are designated drop-off points residents can take used cooking oils/greases for recycling:

City of Houston Environmental Service Centers:
North: Environmental Service Center
5614 Neches Street
Houston 77026
Phone: 713.699.1114
Second Thursday of each month – 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
South: Environmental Service Center
11500 South Post Oak Road
Houston 77035
Phone: 713. 551.7355
Tuesdays and Wednesdays – 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Second Saturday of each month – 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
West: Westpark Consumer Recycling Center
5900 Westpark Drive
Houston 77057
Phone: 713.837.0311
Monday through Saturday – 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Private Service Center in the Heights Area:
Central: Houston Biodiesel
1138 West 20th Street
Houston 77008
Phone: 713.222.0832
Monday through Friday – 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Saturday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
www.houstonbiodiesel.com

For information about Corral the Grease or ways to properly dispose of used cooking grease visit http://www.publicworks.houstontx.gov/utilities/corral_grease.html.

Good to know. Even if you can’t recycle, please don’t try to wash your used cooking oil down the drain. Your pipes will thank you.

Bringing sriracha to Denton

It could happen.

It’s not exactly trending — not yet, anyhow — but #Sriracha2Denton is a thing, thanks to a Denton City Council member who smells an opportunity in the wake of a Southern California dust-up involving the beloved hot sauce that’s giving some residents burning eyes and headaches.

Kevin Roden threw it out there earlier today, and it caught on — because, well, why not. We asked via email if he’s serious. His response, via email: Absolutely.

“We have ample assets for a company like this,” he responded. Among them: “ready to go industrial land, a city-owned energy company with much power to leverage, located right where I35E and I35W converge for easy logistics and distribution, two major universities, a growing urban farm district, and citizens who love the product.”

Roden looped in Aimee Bissett, the director of Denton’s Office of Economic Development, who said that the city has yet to reach out to Huy Fong Foods or its president, David Tran. There’s still much research to be done, she says. For instance, she says, “I suspect but haven’t confirmed yet that their pepper supply may be grown in California.” That could put a dent in Denton’s dreams of becoming home to the most beloved hot sauce this side of, oh, Tabasco.

But, she says, “we have a growing urban farm district and local food movement and have the ability to bring them here.”

I suspect a devil-may-care attitude about environmental regulation may be a factor as well. I doubt this will amount to anything, but you do have to admire the initiative. See here and here for more on the dispute, and here for some helpful hints on how to survive the shortage if the dispute drags on. Texas Monthly has more.

Good times for craft distillers

Just as Texas’ craft brewing industry finally got legislation passed that will allow them to operate more freely, so too did Texas craft distillers.

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday declared September “Texas Craft Spirits Month” as the state begins to implement new laws that give distillers more freedom to produce and sell in the state.

“I think that the main benefit of this is making sure that we have got a solid framework for our distilled craft industry to grow,” state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who co-sponsored four new laws that affect Texas distillers, said during a Monday press conference.

Van de Putte said the new laws put Texas in line with other states that have more relaxed distilled spirits laws, paving the way for Texas to quickly gain national traction in the industry. Distilled spirits include alcoholic beverages such as vodka, gin, tequila and rum. In Texas, distilling is a growing industry with companies like Treaty Oak producing rum and Deep Eddy Vodka making the drink named for one of Austin’s famous swimming holes.

“For the longest time, Kentucky and Tennessee have been the states that have had bragging rights on distilled spirits,” Van de Putte said.

Much of the new legislation seeks to put Texas distillers on a level playing field with other states, giving them more options to produce and sell. Under one bill co-sponsored by Van de Putte and state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, Texas distillers can now buy beer and other liquor used in the making of spirits from other Texas distillers. Another bill by Van de Putte and Guillen allows distillers to solicit and take orders from wholesalers — something only out-of-state distilleries could do previously — and lets companies conduct product samplings at their distilleries with a specific permit to do so.

Daniel Barnes, president and cofounder of the Texas Distilled Spirits Association, said the new legislation would help the industry grow because consumers can now sample the products at the distilleries where they are made and talk to the experts who make them.

“They’ll be able to not only appreciate the craft spirit, but get to know us and get to know how to use craft spirits,” Barnes said.

See here for the background. You know that I approve of this, and would ideally like to see more done on all of these fronts to put craft brewers and distillers on even footing with their larger competitors and with other states. What we got was still a big win after a long and complex battle, and it’s very much something to build on. One of the things I noted when I blogged that earlier story was that the Yellow Rose distillery was planning to move from a suburban location to one near Old Katy Road and Loop 610 inside Houston city limits if these bills passed. They are in the process of moving and hope to have tours available beginning around Thanksgiving. I’m not a spirits drinker myself, but I’m glad to hear that and I wish them all the best.

On selling junk food in Texas schools

Every session, there’s at least one bill that gets passed with little to no notice that has completely unforeseen effects. The Lunch Tray breaks a story about one such bill from this past regular session, which has to do with the sale of junk food in Texas schools.

When it comes to the sale of junk food on campus, high schools tend to be the biggest offenders. Here in Houston ISD, for example, high school students, PTOs and coaches often set up fundraising tables at lunch to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to Chinese food, creating veritable “food courts” of junk food.  Students often prefer to buy these items rather than eat in overcrowded cafeterias or go off campus, and the fundraisers are so lucrative that some principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when TDA fines the school for a violation.

Last spring, though, [Texas Department of Agriculture] got serious and imposed fines totaling $73,000 on eight Houston high schools for illegal competitive food sales.*  Those eye-popping fines made headlines and local TV news, and apparently motivated someone to head up to the state house in Austin to successfully lobby on the issue.

Alluding to the recent TDA fines imposed in Houston, Republican House Representative Ken King introduced in the last legislative session HB1781 which “ensure[s] that Texas high schools have the freedom” to continue junk food fundraisers and which expressly forbids the TDA from fining those schools based on the food’s nutritional content.  Six Republican and two Democratic representatives joined King in co-sponsoring the bill, which ultimately passed and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry on June 14th.  The law is now in effect statewide.

So while the nation as whole is moving forward on issues relating to childhood obesity and poor nutrition, Texas has taken a big leap backward in protecting fundraising that directly and adversely impacts student health.  That development is disheartening enough, but here’s where it gets really messy.

Whoever drafted HB1781 decided to use some legislative shorthand to describe the types of foods that high schools may continue to sell.  But instead of referring back to the state regulations the bill is trying to thwart, HB1781 instead allows Texas high schools to sell “foods of minimal nutritional value” (FMNV), as that term is defined by federal law.

The federal definition of FMNV harks back to the 1970s when there were virtually no rules regarding competitive food and the government was trying to keep the “worst of the worst” out of school cafeterias during meal times.  FMNV is defined generally as foods providing less than 5% of the daily value of certain nutrients and specifically as: sodas and other carbonated beverages; water ices; chewing gum; and certain types of candy — hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallows, fondants, licorice, spun candy and candy-coated popcorn.

So while the Texas legislature was trying to allow high schools to sell fast food entrees at lunch, its sloppy drafting has inadvertently limited high schools to selling only a few foods – basically soda and candy – identified by the federal government over forty years ago as the least healthy for our children.

As TLT notes, when new federal regulations go into effect for the 2014-2015 school year, Texas will be in violation of them. Will Greg Abbott and/or one of the Abbott wannabees sue the federal government to defend Texas’ precious right to let its public schools sell Royal Crown and Moon Pies in school cafeterias? I’ll be honest, I’m kind of rooting for them to do so, just because I think the briefs would be hilarious. Be that as it may, I will point out that HB 1781 passed the House unanimously on the Local and Consent calendar, meaning that it was a bill that was fast-tracked for passage on the grounds that there was basically no opposition to it. What that says to me is that the contents and effect of the bill where not well understood. The TDA may be able to do some things with the implementation of this bill to mitigate its effects, but ultimately it will take an act of the next Legislature to fix this. Hopefully now that this issue has been raised, it can be dealt with.