Despite Zoning Challenges, Lorain Street Food Truck Opens


Daniel Firebanks

Steel Magnolia, a food truck and catering service serving Caribbean and Southern-style cuisine, is located at 408 E. Lorain Street.

After over a year of searching, Steel Magnolia — the only food truck currently located in Oberlin — has found a home on 408 E. Lorain St., near IGA. The truck serves a mix of soul food and traditional Caribbean cuisine and was opened by Oberlin native Shontae Jackson who runs it with her mom, Sarah Jackson, and 17-year-old daughter, Tanzania.

Sarah says that seeing her daughter succeed has been incredibly fulfilling.

“Ever since she was a little girl, it’s been her dream,” Sarah said. “She always talked about, ‘I want my business and I want me a food truck.’ And you know what I’m so proud about? I thank God that He kept me here to see her dream and to help her work on her dream.”

Shontae says it took a lot of planning and organization to make this dream come to fruition, especially because Oberlin has heavy regulations on where food trucks are allowed city limits. These regulations were passed by City Council in 2015 and don’t allow food trucks to operate on the street or any public parks.

“The city’s not gonna let them park on the street and they’re not going to let them park in a park, like most other communities do,” Planning Development Director Carrie Handy explained. “Like Elyria — from what I understand — they’ll let people park on the street downtown with their food trucks. We won’t allow that. Unless it’s a special event where the street’s blocked off.”

Additionally, if food trucks want to operate on private property, they must get a conditional use permit. To get this permit the area in question must be 50 feet away from any residential zoning district. Shontae originally came to the planning committee with several potential spots in downtown Oberlin, but none fit the requirements.

“We have a lot of residential zoning, so it’s really hard to find somewhere that’s going to be 100 feet away,” Handy said.

The 2015 ordinance was passed by City Council in response to concerns from local restaurants.

“It was an issue of fairness,” City Council President Bryan Burgess, who was also on council in 2015, said. “There was the notion that brick and mortar businesses pay property taxes and food trucks don’t. And so even though food trucks do pay sales tax, sales tax is remitted to the county; the city did not get sales tax. The brick and mortar businesses … thought it was profoundly unfair that we would permit food trucks to operate essentially tax free.”

Food trucks were not prominent in Oberlin at the time, rather, the concern was sparked by one food truck in particular.

“If I remember correctly, there was somebody that — they were students at Oberlin College and they bought a food truck. … I think that’s what started the whole debate,” Handy said. “If I remember right, it was like gourmet grilled cheese.”

Despite these regulations, Steel Magnolia was recently able to find a home about a mile away from the College, on a lot that previously housed a car wash. This location is different than Jackson’s original plan of being situated in downtown Oberlin — still, the food truck has found success in its current location.

“I’m where I’m supposed to be because I’m filling the need,” Shontae said. “You know, if this wasn’t working out, or if it was nobody knew about me, or if the college students [weren’t] coming down here and stuff — that would be different. [But] we have all these businesses around us who come for lunch. … You know, Tappan Square is the ideal. But I kind of liked not having to go through politics.”

While Shontae understands the fear some restaurants might have, she believes that — rather than taking a competitive approach — more variety is a good thing.

“Some of the restaurant owners, from what I hear, [have] the concern of food trucks being able to move about and interfering with the business of the brick and mortars,” Shontae added. “I respect the brick and mortars, but I respect the food truck community too. … There’s enough taste buds and different flavors for everyone. Oberlin may be small, but it’s ever-changing.”

For Shontae, the ability to run her own business while also being a single mom to her three kids is invaluable.

“I am a single mother, so it took some loss, because it takes a lot of work to want to be an entrepreneur, to want to own your own, and it takes a lot of time,” Shontae said. “I’m okay with everything because guess what? My children are with me. They bring their board games [into the truck]. That’s what it was all about. I always wanted my family to be with me.”

From making banana bread by herself at eight years old, to learning family soul food recipes in her mom’s kitchen, to watching her father grow vegetables in their backyard, food and the community that comes with it has always been integral to Shontae’s life.

When Shontae learned traditional Caribbean recipes from a close friend 12 years ago, she expanded what she was able to do with food. The food truck is a result of this collaboration between these Caribbean flavors and her mom’s southern recipes.

“Ever since I’ve been nine years old I was a cook,” Sarah said. “And, see, I love cooking, but I cook soul food. Now, I don’t do the food [my mom] cooks — like the Caribbean food and all that. So what we do sometimes [is] we throw it in together and it just flows.”

Even with the obstacles that Steel Magnolia faced to get where it is, Shontae wouldn’t trade where she is for anything.

“I grew up in Oberlin and Oberlin — to me — it’s just one of those special places,” Shontae said. “It wasn’t easy to bring my business right through the door, but it was worth the wait.”