San Diego, CA: Food Trucks Forcing Action
By David Garrick | UTSanDiego.com
The national food truck craze invaded North County last year, forcing many of the region’s cities to hastily revise regulations in response to complaints and threats of litigation.
But instead of operating in lockstep, cities have taken widely varying approaches to food truck rules and policies.
The trucks, which offer a variety of gourmet food and typically travel in packs, have used social media to become increasingly popular, leading some traditional restaurants to say the trucks create unfair competition and threaten their survival.
Oceanside, Carlsbad and Vista have loosened their food truck rules without creating much turmoil.
But Encinitas and Del Mar quickly cracked down last fall when a more permissive approach to food trucks prompted loud complaints from brick-and-mortar restaurants about unfair competition.
Encinitas began requiring a special permit and $1,600 fee for events involving food trucks in September, essentially killing the “Food Truck Fridays” festival on Highway 101 a few weeks after it was launched.
Del Mar placed a moratorium on food truck permits in November so officials could craft a revised ordinance that the City Council is scheduled to discuss Jan. 14.
Meanwhile, Escondido officials said they plan to propose rules next month that would allow food trucks only at special events. They said the decision was based on feedback at a public forum in November and months of analysis.
San Marcos officials said their analysis prompted them to repeal nearly every regulation the city had against food trucks in November, based primarily on fear of litigation.
State law prohibits cities from adopting food truck regulations aimed at protecting traditional restaurants, San Marcos City Attorney Helen Holmes Peak said last week. So cities must contend that the trucks threaten public health or safety to impose special rules on them, she said.
“We didn’t have traffic or other public safety statistics that we felt supported the regulations that were previously in place,” Peak said.
Most cities reach the same conclusion after studying the law, said Matt Geller, president of a food truck lobbying organization called the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association.
“In North County, it’s something new, so everybody’s got to figure it out,” Geller said.
His group has successfully sued eight cities in the Los Angeles area for illegal food truck regulations. “The cities don’t have a lot of power,” he said.
Geller said another problem is that most cities have outdated regulations that never anticipated the recent craze.
“Much of the regulations framework is from the 1950s and ’60s, based on ice cream trucks,” he said. “So we help cities rewrite their regulations for free. And if a city is really uncomfortable, we’re OK with them taking some time.”
But Kathy Garcia, Del Mar’s planning chief, said her city wasn’t planning to take a completely permissive approach.
While Del Mar’s proposed ordinance was still being crafted last week, Garcia said it would probably regulate the trucks based on similar criteria used in Santa Monica, which include trash, seating, light, noise and availability of restrooms. Those criteria fall within the areas of public safety, she said.
“Each city has its own set of circumstances,” Garcia said. “It most likely won’t be one size fits all.”
Rebecca Lee, who operates a gourmet sausage truck called the Underdogs Gastro Truck, said she empathizes with the cities.
“Sometimes change is hard to take and hard to make,” she said. “But I think the cities are on the right track.”
However, Lee said food truck demand in North County is strong enough for weekly gatherings in most cities. She said the events would be similar to a congregation held each Wednesday in Chula Vista, or one held each Tuesday in North Park.
“There’s nothing like that in North County because there’s no place allowing us to congregate,” she said.
And Lee said complaints from more traditional restaurants are mostly unfair. Many restaurant owners say food trucks operate on an uneven playing field because of their much lower startup and overhead costs.
But Lee said food trucks must pay permit fees and obtain business licenses in every city where they operate. And she said they typically avoid direct competition by seeking out areas where restaurants are scarce.
Geller, the lobbying group president, said the trucks don’t want to roam city streets and steal customers from restaurants.
“The trucks would rather do events, because they work best in a group and in a safe and controlled environment,” he said.
But he also said market-based economies sometimes weed out inefficient businesses, such as the way Netflix used the postal service to nearly kill Blockbuster Video.
He said many restaurants would survive, because they offer a sit-down experience food trucks can’t replicate. But he said some might not, because food trucks give customers better quality and value for their money.
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