Food trucks may have a promising future in Santa Monica after all— it may just take a while before the City knows how to give the mobile food vendors the optimal forum to sell their unique edible products to local residents, employees, and visitors.
Santa Monica City Council members took no decisive action during a study session of food trucks during a special June 21 meeting, requesting staff to return with a myriad of options of how to best allow the mobile vendors to operate in Santa Monica. Specifically, the council sought “to assess the need for additional on-street regulations regarding parking time limits and/or prohibitions” in the name of public safety and “proposals to [lobby] the State legislature to amend the Vehicle Code” in order for the City to “establish special designations for on-street mobile vending.” The council also requested staff to return “with recommendations regarding the permitting process for off-street mobile food vending trucks on specific sites.”
Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis said food trucks promote a communal experience and affordable food for families. “My guess is that if we might find some off-street opportunities for food trucks, they may be less inclined to want to be on the streets where we don’t want them,” Davis said, adding downtown Santa Monica would be a difficult location to allow food trucks. She was also worried about unfair competition, where restaurants in the downtown area have much higher overhead costs and wouldn’t be able to compete with food trucks.
Housing and Economic Development Director Andy Agle said staff had received several complaints from the local business community about the food trucks. Agle reported concerns by non-mobile food vendors of the lack of a level playing field, with food trucks, at least perceptively, maintaining a competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar restaurants. Specifically, brick-and-mortar businesses have to pay rent, government fees, special assessments, and are subject to the City’s signage and aesthetic rules.
“With respect to on-street vending, where trucks park on city streets and patrons are served on the adjacent sidewalks, we’ve received concerns from adjacent businesses and business districts,” he told the council. “These include public safety concerns related to putting pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists at risk, as well as obstructing police views into businesses.”
Even more, Agle said city regulation of food trucks is rather difficult, as restrictive action against the mobile vendors is “constricted by the California Vehicle Code, which prohibits cities from adopting regulations governing on-street mobile vending other than for public safety reasons.”
“We also received quite a bit of positive feedback,” he said, adding the food trucks give a community feel much like a farmers’ market.
Half of brick-and-mortar restaurants reported slower business on food truck nights, Agle reported. A recent survey conducted by the staff of food truck patrons indicated that a majority of people patronizing the mobile vendors were less likely to visit brick-and-mortar restaurants on nights they purchased food from the culinary vehicles.
Toby Smith of the California Heritage Museum, which hosts the Tuesday night food trucks on the Main Street lot as a source of funding, disagreed with Agle’s assertions during public comment. “A number of the restaurants we have contacted are in support (of food trucks),” she said, adding nearby brick-and-mortar restaurants actually experience an increase in business. “I think some of the results may not be totally accurate. The community is really enjoying the food trucks (and it) is something that benefits the community.”
Another resident, Garret Gerson, a boardmember of the museum, said the local farmers’ markets experienced similar opposition by area businesses, similar to food trucks today. Yet, farmers’ markets are now an iconic element of Santa Monica, and Gerson suggested perhaps the food trucks could be another signature of the city.
“It is really a tremendous community event,” he said. “There are kids and dogs and everyone is picnicking on the lawn (of the heritage museum).”
Louisa Fish raised concern of potential increases in jaywalking and the lack of large masses of people near Santa Monica Boulevard and 14th Street, another proposed food truck lot, while resident Gary Cavanaugh added the food trucks parking on Pennsylvania Avenue, near his workplace, serve as an ideal dining destination in an area featuring minimal restaurant options within a reasonable walking distance.
Council member Kevin McKeown seemed to side with food truck supporters. “The first step would be to try to encourage the activities and businesses where we do want them and in a way that benefits the community,” he said. “What’s been happening on Main Street, on the whole, has been pretty positive. There is a lot of opportunity here if we are wise enough to pursue it.”
In comparing food trucks to Internet commerce and the threats it posed to brick-and-mortar businesses such as bookstores, McKeown added the world did not come to an end when he bought ice cream from ice cream trucks as a child, making a point that the desire to regulate mobile vendors such as food trucks is not always a good thing.
One of the council’s primary concerns included the impact of food trucks on downtown area restaurants. “I do think the experiment … has been successful by and large,” Mayor Richard Bloom said. “I remain concerned about uses in other parts of the city. My major concern … is in our most congested part of the city, downtown Santa Monica.”
Another worry is late night vending, when popular bars in the area close at around 2 a.m., Santa Monica Police Department officers told council members that the “party atmosphere” of local bars or clubs spill onto public streets after closing and patronize food trucks who capitalize on the late night crowds. Police officers were concerned the nightlife hours would be unofficially extended beyond 2 a.m. at lingering food trucks, potentially threatening public safety.
While he liked the idea of food trucks, Council member Bob Holbrook hoped Santa Monica would not be flooded with too many of them. “I think it’s kind of neat that we have the food trucks (but) I am a little concerned there are 150 of them licensed in Santa Monica. I hope we don’t wind up gridlocked,” he said. “I would be reluctant to have a permanent location where there was a roundup seven nights a week. I think that we would hear from merchants continuously.”