THE operator of a Limerick mobile coffee truck who was threatened with prosecution after giving free drinks and food to frontline healthcare workers fighting COVID-19, said more needs to be done to help businesses survive the pandemic.
Andrew Moloney, operations manager with Hook & Ladder catering company, said they received a letter from Limerick City and County Council on February 5th notifying them of a prosecution for breaching the Casual Trading Act.
The letter stated that the alleged offence related to the company operating “HAL”, their coffee truck, on the grounds of the University Hospital Limerick (UHL) and University Maternity Hospital Limerick (UMHL).
Mr Moloney said he contacted the Council to explain they had not traded as they had not charged for the drinks and food, but the Council claimed it had evidence they had been trading.
On February 15th, a representative of Hook & Ladder received an email from a council official which stated, “if you are giving out free coffees/teas etc to all customers then you are not in breach of the Casual Trading Act, and the Council will not be pursuing you under this legislation”.
Mr Moloney said there is too much red tape for businesses especially under lockdown, and that the Council had jumped the gun.
“We were providing a free ‘hug-in-a-mug’ to the frontline workers. We’ve been in the hospital unfortunately as a family for quiet a number of years, and we have seen what they do in there.”
“We have seen that, pre-Covid (the hospital staff) were Trojans.”
“Most recently, an elderly member of my family was in UHL. They went in there without Covid and came out of there without Covid, and the staff are doing fantastic work.”
“Hook & Ladder have been offering free teas and coffees to frontline workers over the past year from our restaurants, so as we have a truck, and because a lot of (the workers) can’t come to us, we decided to go to them”, Mr Moloney, 29, explained.
“We weren’t trading, and we can prove it, just ask the 600 hospital staff we served in UHL and the 300 staff we served in St John’s and the Maternity. They will all advocate that we did not charge a red cent for anything, so, we weren’t trading. Yet, our Council took it upon themselves to issue us with legal proceedings, in these times, which they appear to have backed down from.”
Hook & Ladder have called for greater engagement with the Council to find a way of allowing mobile businesses operate during the pandemic.
The company said it had investigated applying for a casual trading licence but that it only applies to one specific part of Limerick which is already well served by coffee operators.
A Council spokesman said: “Limerick City and County Council does not comment in public about specific dealings between the Council and a customer. The customer can clarify any questions or queries they have with the Council by contacting us.”
They said “all businesses must apply for permission to operate on a casual basis, and, currently, the only area in the city where casual trading is permitted is the area surrounding the Milk Market – Carr Street, Robert Street, Cornmarket Row, and portion of Ellen Street”.
Independent Councillor Elisa O’Donovan has submitted a notice of motion that the Council would “extend event casual trading licenses during Covid restrictions to facilitate rate paying businesses to operate outdoor grated in specified areas”.
In light of this the Council said it had decided “to refer the notice of motion to the Economic Development, Enterprise and Planning SPC for a review”.
Healthcare workers in the UL Hospital Group, and at Milford Care Centre which provides palliative care, said they were grateful to Hook & Ladder.
A UHL spokesman said: “We can confirm that free coffees/hot drinks were donated to staff on the dates in question on all three sites with the agreement of hospital management. We are grateful for the support so many local organisations and businesses have shown our staff during the pandemic.”
Despite HAL being invited to trade at the Gaelic Grounds stadium, Mr Moloney said he was forced to close up after six hours trading today, following a visit from a council official who took a photograph of the mobile truck.
Hook & Ladder owner, Oliver Moloney, tweeted HAL had been “kindly invited by the Gaelic Grounds on the Ennis Rd” and that “barista coffee, teas, & hot chops” would be “available from 10am”.
A Council spokesman noted, “in general planning, legislation states that anyone operating a business on private property requires planning permission”.
Andrew Moloney tweeted tonight “we were forced into the closure of our coffee van after a mere 6 hours of trade, we have decided to concede the battle, but the war for change in our city is only starting”.
Limerick GAA did not respond to requests for comment.