Alma welcomes McClenahan’s barbecue trailer
Sixty-six-year-old Monte McClenahan found the home for his 21,000-pound barbecue trailer in Alma that he so desperately wanted but could not get in Frisco.
Landing in Summit County three decades ago, McClenahan made his livelihood here as a bail bondsman, taking calls at all hours of the day springing the accused from lockup for a fee.
“People know me,” McClenahan said as he tried to describe himself and his place in this town during our first meeting in July. “They say, ‘Hey, Monte!’”
Now, the High Country bondsman dreams of letting the phone ring unanswered, as he shifts into the more savory business of serving up slow-smoked, Texas-style barbecue from his beloved meat wagon.
To facilitate the move, McClenahan negotiated to buy the massive, custom-built unit from a company outside the Kansas City area at the tune of $145,000 last winter.
Getting the deal done and the trailer delivered in March, he found a partnership with another meat-smoker based in Denver and had graphics reading, “Cub’s Authentic Alpine Barbecue,” fixed to the sides of his trailer before seeking the proper permitting.
The trailer itself is wall-to-wall stainless steel, 38 feet long and more than 8 feet wide. It’s impressive by almost any measure, but as McClenahan later discovered, there’s no place for it in Frisco, a tourist town that keeps a tight lid on its mobile food vendors.
Lucky for McClenahan, the highest incorporated town in North America, named after a merchant’s wife, Alma James, was close enough while still being a world away.
A long road
When McClenahan took the keys to the trailer, he thought he would be up and smoking within a couple months. He even printed promotional materials that said as much, but he had to black out the dates on 3,000 postcard fliers after it came and went.
Little did McClenahan know, getting up and running would be much more difficult than he originally thought. That’s because Frisco’s town code effectively prevents anything like McClenahan’s operation from setting up here on a regular basis.
There are a number of rules and restrictions Frisco imposes on mobile food vendors, and as McClenahan sought town officials’ help navigating his way through them, it soon became clear there was no way he could side-step a provision preventing him occupying any more than 100 square feet.
For reference, an 8-foot square hot tub measures 64 square feet. In comparison, the rotisserie smoker that takes up the back fourth of McClenahan’s trailer goes sailing past the maximum allowance alone.
There were other issues too, according to Frisco town officials, including McClenahan’s trailer being too close to an existing building with a second-floor apartment patio and another food vendor having already set up on the same block of Main Street.
Even if the two latter issues could have been mitigated, the size limitation was a killer.
Ultimately, the town denied McClenahan’s application for a permit, and with little belief that appealing the decision would do him any good, McClenahan accepted defeat, packed up his trailer and moved along.
Opens arms in Alma
When McClenahan needs to dress up, he puts on his best cowboy hat. He wore it Aug. 15 as Alma Town Council sat under a bingo callers’ board at town hall and delivered the jackpot the bail bondsman had been looking for.
On the agenda were a pair of items specifically for him, the first being a rewrite of town code and the second his application for his permit.
The rewrite was a necessary move to get to the next piece of business. Just like Frisco and Breckenridge, Alma too has restrictions on mobile food vendors, and all three have the same law strictly limiting them to 100 square feet.
Or at least, Alma did.
The elected officials quickly passed the first line item in a unanimous vote, rewriting town code in one swift swoop, to create a way around the 100-square-foot limit.
Council then moved on to McClenahan’s permit application before asking the man if he would like to speak.
“It’s sort of my retirement dream,” McClenahan told the council members as he started to tear up for a brief moment.
“This is supposed to be my retirement hobby,” he continued, pulling himself together. “It’s been a lot of work, but we’re ready to start smoking. We’re right next to The Smoke Shack (a marijuana-based T-shirt company, quasi-art gallery and head shop), and I think you’ll like what I’ve been smoking.”
McClenahan began to cry again as he thanked the Alma council for welcoming him and for “taking the initiative to change the ordinance.”
“I didn’t ask for it,” he added.
If there were any doubts McClenahan would leave the meeting without the permit he was seeking, they were squashed when one of the councilmen interrupted the emotional barbecue aficionado mid-sentence.
“The longer you talk about it, the longer we have to wait for barbecue,” the councilman said.
A roar of laughter rolled over the room, and a barbecue love-fest ensued.
“You guys have welcomed me, changing your ordinance, and I very much appreciate that,” McClenahan said wrapping up his remarks. “I hope you come in for some good barbecue.”
A couple strangers in the audience fought back tears of their own, and a nearby business owner, the chief of police and a throng of McClenahan’s supporters took turns speaking on the record. It was largely unnecessary, but they all wanted to weigh in.
“I think it will be a great asset,” said Cory Kritzmire, owner of the Al-Mart general store that sits across the street from The Smoke Shack. “Business brings business … and Monte said he’ll be open on Mondays, which will be an asset to all of us.”
Another man vouched for McClenahan’s effort and character before a woman who’s working with the barbecue trailer spoke out about the food. Then Alma’s police chief took his turn.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve never met nicer people than this group here,” the chief said. He later pointed out his portly belly and promised to stop by on the first day McClenahan opens for business.
“Monte, I can’t wait until you open up,” the chief said.
After another handful of speakers, including a man who hopes to buy the business property, which is now up for sale, and keep McClenahan’s trailer on-site, council moved to give McClenahan his permit. The vote was unanimous — even the council’s vegetarian supported it.
“Welcome to the town,” Mayor Gary Goettelman told McClenahan to another boisterous round of applause.
Open for business
McClenahan is now selling his barbecue daily and aims to do business throughout what’s left of the summer season. He’s dishing out brisket, ribs and pulled pork, complete with all the fixin’s, starting at 11 a.m. and going until he’s sold out.
After securing the permit in Alma, McClenahan opened the following Friday. His first day in business, he said, he “almost sold out of every meat.”
McClenahan’s first choice was always Frisco. He lives here, knows people in the community and didn’t want to have to drive the more than 25 miles each way over Hoosier Pass at 11,542 feet.
Frisco and Alma may be a 40-minute drive away from each other, but in many ways, they’re a world apart. With its tourist traffic, existing businesses and $1.4 million in sales tax receipts from restaurants alone in 2016, Frisco has considerably more to protect with its enforcement of town code regarding mobile food trucks and how they might affect those restaurants.
And there’s an added benefit restaurants afford the local economy that is unmatched by food trucks. Restaurants employ more people and contribute more to the local economy and exist as year-round businesses.
While McClenahan believes Frisco’s efforts to protect local restaurants are what ultimately did him in in Summit County, the law that kept him out has been on the books for years, much longer than many of the town officials who now enforce it.
Still, he found in Alma the warm welcome he was seeking for his barbecue dream, one that he couldn’t get here in Summit County, and for McClenahan, being wanted seems to be as important as anything.
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