Popular mobile fashion boutique snagged by city permit confusion

The owner of a popular local clothing boutique just learned she may be forced to button up some of her business in order to stay legal. She's part of the new and growing trend of turning box trucks into traveling retail stores. But confusion over permits is unraveling part of her business plan, and she's not alone.

Before Malika Siddiq invested her life savings in a mobile fashion boutique 7 months ago, she says she saved her money and did her homework to make sure everything was by the book. She says she contacted the city to make sure she had the proper documents.

"I just got the licenses they told me I needed," said Siddiq. "My resellers license, my Washington state business license, my City of Seattle license. I'm a legit business owner. I want to follow all the rules. I want to do everything the right way."

Siddiq says her new business, Lika Love Mobile Fashion Boutique, took off even better than she anticipated and everything was great until last Friday when she got an unexpected customer with a badge. She was parked along Seattle's Alki Beach, set up as usual.

"And a police officer pulled up behind me and he came up and started asking me questions about my licenses. And I explained to him that I had all the licenses that the city had told me that I needed," Siddiq said.

The Seattle police officer told Siddiq that city ordinance required her to have a vendor's street use permit because her truck was on the public right of way. Violation carries a fine of $500. The officer let her off with a warning but made her close shop.

Siddiq says she later discovered that other truck vendors on Alki had not been stopped by the officer -- including another mobile clothing boutique.

According to the Seattle Police Department, Siddiq's truck location was one of two locations where the officer conducted license checks before getting called away.

Despite repeated attempts to get the required permit, Siddiq says she kept hitting a wall. No one at City Hall could help.

"I made calls and talked to people at the city. They said they'd never heard of a mobile boutique before. And there was no type of permit available for me," she said.

Siddiq is not the only mobile vendor to run into the same permit confusion. Trent Ottosen and a friend recently started a mobile cell phone repair business. They perform on the spot repairs when people drop their phones, and occassionally sell new cell phone cases. Ottosen says police haven't bothered him at Alki, but he too was told by the city there is no permit to get.

"We talked to the licensing people and they said there are no permits or ordinances for our type of business," he said.

Siddiq suspects her boutique may have attracted police attention because, unlike the cell phone repair business, her displays take up space outside the truck. For now, the only way she can legally sell her clothing and accessories is on private property with the owners permission. But it seems even some city workers may be confused about the permit requirements.

It took me several calls to several city departments to find someone to give me a definitive answer about retail truck permits. According the SDOT's Street Use Division, with few exceptions -- food trucks being one of them -- a long-standing city code prohibits vending on public streets or sidewalks. And you can't get a permit, because permits for selling clothes, repairing phones or doing other business on the street from a truck do not exist. The only way to change that is to get the ordinance changed -- like the food truck vendors did.

So, why didn't city workers tell that that to Siddiq, Ottosen and others? Without knowing who Siddiq spoke with or what she was told, a spokesperson for the city Licensing Division told me that in a similar situation, if a person contacts the business license line and indicates they are planning to operate a mobile business in the public right-of-way, in addition to explaining a business license is required to conduct business in Seattle, staff would direct her to the Seattle Department of Transportation's Street Use Division to determine if the activity is allowed and what permit may be needed. If the business owner did not specify the business would be mobile, then staff would simply tell her she needs a business license to conduct business in the city of Seattle, and also refer her to the state Department of Revenue to obtain a Washington State Unified Business Identifier

Siddiq says she thought her initial explanation -- a mobile fashion boutique -- made it pretty clear that she would be selling clothing out of her truck. She says the customer service rep never asked for more details. Bottom line: retail trucks like Siddiq's and Ottosen's are a developing trend and appear to be different than most other vending businesses city workers are accustomed to dealing with. Until the street vendor ordinance changes, anyone hoping to start a retail business in a box truck should be very specific about how they plan to execute their business. If the business involves offering products or services to the general public- make sure the transactions take place on private property. Selling on city streets, sidewalks or other public right of ways means you're taking a $500 risk