Riverboat casino loophole allows first food truck barge in the Des Moines River — but controversy looms
The first in a new breed of river-floating food trucks rolled off the riverbank and into the Des Moines River on March 24. This self-proclaimed “food barge” — named Catfish Meow — has set up shop directly downstream from the Center Street Bridge’s waterfall and walking bridge, upstream from Simon Estes Ampitheater.
The “big biscuit,” as it has been dubbed by John P. Jones, the vessel’s owner and captain, is an old food truck with pontoons welded up under its skirting to make it float. The boat’s maiden voyage came despite protests from city officials who say it doesn’t fit the metro’s preferred image at such a visible location.
Captain Jones moved ahead with the project anyway.
“This biscuit is permitted to vend food,” Jones said. “That’s what we are doing.”
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said Jones has the right to sell food, but the mayor also confirmed the temporary permit was reluctantly granted as a result of an outdated statute in the Iowa Code, a leftover remnant from riverboat casino legislation written in the 1980s.
“They don’t own the river,” Jones said. “The people of Iowa do. They can’t stop this.”
“He’s right,” concurred Cownie. “The people do own the river. But we all have to look at what’s in the river. That’s why we’ll be working with the state legislature to make some changes. The people shouldn’t be subjected to that rusty boat barge. It’s an eyesore.”
Iowa Code 99F.3 states that river vessels selling consumables such as food and non-alcoholic drinks are authorized to operate in non-privately owned waters while awaiting a decision from the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission (IRGC) on applications made for a gaming license.
Jones applied for a gaming license earlier this month, but experts agree he has no chance of licensure.
“He has satisfied the letter of the law,” said Jessica Spoden, who is on the city’s legal staff and specializes in zoning enforcement. “So he can vend food on the river while waiting for word on his application. But when he’s denied — and he will be denied, as approval is incredibly difficult — he’ll be forced out of the water.”
Spoden also explained the IRGC meets every six months and last convened in mid-March. She pointed out that the timing of the Meow’s application, which came one day after the commission closed its docket, is suspicious at best. She said it also likely means Jones will be cooking and selling his catfish on the river through the end of the summer.
“The code was written so boats with a revoked license could maintain restaurant operations during the reapplication and appeal process,” said Cownie. “No one foresaw someone pulling a food truck out of the junkyard, welding pontoons under it, and then pretending to apply as a riverboat casino. It’s ridiculous.”
“He can call it ridiculous,” said Jones. “I’d call it ingenious. You say potato. I say potaw-toe. Either way, I am not taking this thing out of the river.”
There is one sticking point in Jones’ plan, though. While Iowa Code allows riverboats awaiting approval from the IRGC to be on the river serving food, it also states that “any vessel under 2,000 square feet shall not tether to, or attach in any manner, to the riverbank or river bottom, nor shall they grant non-marine means of access to the public.”
“Without a gaming license, small boats can’t attach to shore,” said Cownie. “So Mr. Jones can build a barge, but he can’t dock it, too. Nor can he offer a ramp that’s accessible to customers.”
But the captain won’t let that hurdle sink his ship. The entrepreneur says he sets sail each day before sun up to haul in a daily catch of fresh bullhead mud suckers. Jones cleans the fish himself for a menu primarily based on variations of his family’s recipe calling for sweetened bread crumbles, mashed together with catfish and mixed with heavy cream.
“Then I form them into kielbasa-shaped biscuits,” Jones explained. “And I roll them up into a unique cornbread bun that’s shaped like a pancake. It’s finished with various flavors of syrup and salted butter.”
Then it’s anchors away for Jones.
“The Meow’s hull isn’t allowed to touch bottom while I’m serving my patrons,” Jones said. “So I anchor out in the middle, and when someone waves at me, I row over and take their order.”
|Other boats pursuing licenses
Wet Again — The log ride at Adventureland may be no more, but a few of the remnants were salvaged from the scrap heap and used in this new barge, which will feature the “Yack Attack,” a 3/4-pound hamburger sprinkled with ketchup, tomatos, pickles and a dollop of antique vomit from the ride’s floor.
The Crappie — Owners Stephen Anderson and Marc Thompson admit they don’t know a crappie from a crawdad, but that’s not the point. “It’s not a reference to the quality of the food or a fish, but instead, it represents society’s disgraceful treatment of our loving neighbor of the sea, the Florida manatee, ” Anderson said. “We shall never see them here in Iowa because of it. Shameful.”
Note: The city will use the revenue from these and other barges to fund further studies on its new space exploration program.
Jones cooks each “big river breaded biscuit bandit dawg” fresh to order, so there is quite a bit of effort involved in keeping up with the lunch rush. But Jones grew up rowing his canoe in the river all day long while he sold worms boat to boat to other fishermen. He paddles the canoe back and forth an estimated 100 times daily.
“All in a day’s work,” he said. “I’d like to leave a megaphone on shore so customers can shout it out at me. Not everyone thinks I should.”
Jones is referring to Cownie.
“Using a megaphone for commercial purposes on the riverbank would violate the city’s noise ordinance,” Cownie said. “We cannot allow that.”
Experts say there are likely more food barges on the way.
“It’s business school 101,” said Sir Thomas Foot, Drake professor of finance. “It’s cheaper to float a barge on the river than to purchase riverfront real estate. ‘Dry land locations’ require extensive injections of upfront starter capital. From a business standpoint, the biscuit barge is a low-risk slam dunk.”
“And Bingo was his name-O,” said Jones when told about the Drake professor’s remarks. “The boat cost me nothing, a couple hundred bucks for used pots, pans and a new flat-top grill. I catch my own fish, so they’re free. For the price of some other ingredients, plus the cooking propane, I’m a small business owner.”
Jones launched the first boat, but others are sure to follow. City documents show 12 additional applicants have already filed for similar temporary permits, and even more are expected.
“Unfortunately, there’s no cap on the number of boats allowed in the river,” the mayor said.
Pontoon Industries Inc., a manufacturer of pontoons and propellers, has reported a deluge of calls from would-be riverboat food barge launchers. They also applied for, and recently received, a $300,000 small business grant by the League of Forest Conservation. League chairman Jack Teedofenhausen said he’s outraged.
“The grant was intended to be given to a green, eco-friendly business, operating for the benefit of the river. Not one that enables the defilement of Mother Nature. But no one else applied, and we were obligated by federal regulations to dole out the money.”
“Snooze you lose, I guess,” Jones said. “I should have applied. That money would buy me a heck of a lot of diesel.”
He went on to admit that because his barge was never engineered for water travel, its fuel consumption is slightly higher than one might expect.
“The mighty Meow gets maybe one mile to every 17 gallons of gas,” Jones estimated. “And that’s because I sawed off every emissions filter to even get it that low.”
Jones isn’t worried about any competition the new applications might bring. He said he has plans to file for more temporary licenses and launch an entire fleet into both the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. But because most future employees are unlikely to be proficient paddlers, he will experiment with different food delivery mechanisms.
“My next barge will offer a discount for customers who row themselves over. And to comply with handicap accessibility laws, we’ll launch a la carte items from T-shirt cannons. It’ll be cheaper shooting these bullhead sandwiches from a cannon — or a potato launcher — than to pay someone to paddle.”
Jones has other options as well. He dreams of signing elite level Little League pitchers and Pee Wee League quarterbacks to throw the hot dogs over the river.
“I’d need a way to circumvent current child labor law,” Jones said. “The government puts up red tape at every turn. Technology is ramping to help corporations like me though. One day I can see drone technology coming through. People could order via Internet, pay by credit card and then receive deliveries by drone.”
|Iowa Code 99F.3
The system of entering Iowa’s waterways for the purpose of serving Iowans consumable goods is provided by this chapter and is legal, when conducted on vessels submerged in water but hereby stay unattached to any river bottom or riverbank. The consumable must never travel to dry land by way of firm construction apparatus. Applicants for a license must be approved for a license if the applicant intends to serve the interests of the citizens of Iowa.
The Des Moines City Council has scheduled public workshops to discuss improving the city’s creeks and rivers. But Cownie worries the discussion will be hijacked by concerns about floating food trucks.
“There are a plethora of possibilities on the table when it comes to beautifying our rivers,” the mayor said. “The range of possible improvements includes boat ramps to ease motor boat entry, whitewater elements for daredevils, and even kayak rentals and water trail connections for summer leisure. But I’ve spoken with several constituents from a good cross section of the city, and quite frankly, people are mad as hell. I’m not sure they’ll take it anymore.”
Nancy Funoway is one such concerned citizen.
“I’m uneasy about the prospect of hundreds of floating food trucks tooling down the Des Moines River, especially if Mr. Jones is planning to arm them with rocket launchers.
He’s going to be blowing high-calorie, low-grade junk food into crowds of innocent bystanders without any regulations whatsoever?” Funoway asked. “Do we really have to spend time constructing an argument against this? Let’s just do the water trails and be done with the biscuits and the lone voice meowing in the water.”
The upcoming council workshops are expected to be heavily attended due to this unexpected happenstance. County says finding solutions won’t be easy.
“Our rivers can be a signature recreational amenity for Greater Des Moines,” said the mayor. “Or we can be catfish sandwich kings of the Midwest. The public’s preferences will be developed into a master plan given to the Greater Des Moines Water Trail committee to consider.”
Jones doesn’t seem concerned with the mayor’s opposition or anyone else’s.
“I just try to focus like a laser on serving inexpensive fried-freshwater catfish. I know if I do that, everything else will take care of itself,” Jones said. “I’m delivering edible food at a rate people can afford. I’m going to fight to make this license permanent.
Jones recently formed a political action group, River Boat Trucker Association (RBTA), an organization “determined to protect the rights of floating biscuit barges being persecuted by unjust powers-that-be,” and it has already filed an injunction to protect Iowa Code 99F.3.
“Protecting the legislature’s wisdom from 1982 is my first priority,” said Jones. “I have not yet begun to fight.”
| Menu items at the catFish meow
Turtles in a half shell – flavorful morsels of uncooked turtle meat, marinated in low carb nitrates and basted in the cesspool named the Raccoon River, which is where our drinking water originates.
Raccoon River Mussels – Little morsels of heaven with just a hint of diesel.
DSM escargot – Iowa born and bred snails straight from the river.
The Hell Bender – Artificially fried hot dogs dipped in dill mayo served in a dirty oven mitt.
Catfish Yum Yum – Don’t ask, just enjoy!
Catering offered for weddings and other black-tie affairs.
It’s not just city leaders with doubts about the food barges. Downtown bridge fishermen also have concerns.
“The fish won’t bite anymore,” said T.J. Hooker, bridge fisherman. “They’re bigger than ever, and fatter than a boa constrictor after swallowing a Chihuahua, but they won’t bite. It started with that barge.”
Hooker admits the boat isn’t all bad.
“They do sell coleslaw for $1.99 a gallon,” he said. “And it’s delectable. I eat it every day.”
He also explained how many fishermen are adapting to the changes.
“We’ve put away our poles and are opting for spear fishing. “Now that they’re fat, they’re sitting ducks.”
“Catfish love fried food,” said Cownie. “It’s a law of nature. It’s pretty much like crack cocaine to them.”
“I’ve been dumping my deep fryer oil into the river every night,” Jones confessed. “I think that grease is a catfish superfood. The Des Moines Water Works won’t dump nitrates in the river anymore, I figured someone needed to fill the vacuum.”
It’s still unknown if the barges will be allowed to serve alcohol, but booze cruises might be on the horizon.
“One Macarena, two Macarena,” joked Jones. “Choo-Choo! If you’re wondering, I’m the one who let the catfish dogs out.”
Gray’s Lake and Saylorville are options
“Other possible hot spots for future expansion of river barges are Gray’s Lake and Saylorville. The Iowa Code was intended to allow for food service permits on rivers, but it doesn’t actually say “rivers.” Instead, it says “non-privately owned fresh water.”
“That leaves Saylorville and Gray’s Lake in play,” admitted Cownie. “But only a fool would allow this to happen.” CV