Mobile food fight wages beyond Auburn in cites statewide

Auburn just the latest lunchtime battleground
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Editor's note: This is the second story of a three-part series that will appear in the Journal in the days leading up to Monday’s Auburn City Council meeting, where a new set of food truck regulations is slated to be up for adoption. Part 1, “Food truck debate in Auburn beckons question of fairness,” analyzed the issue of fair competition. When the Auburn City Council meets Monday to review and potentially adopt a new set of food truck regulations, it will be yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of how California cities respond to the trend. But this statewide food fight can leave more of a mark than just a mustard stain. Although some municipalities have embraced the movement, others have put up road blocks similar to those being considered in Auburn and mobile food coalitions have fought against them – even resorting to lawsuits in some cases. The set of regulations recommended by the city’s planning commission on Sept. 4 would ban mobile food vendors from operating in Old Town and Downtown Auburn because of what it deemed safety concerns, narrow streets and, to a lesser extent, a need to be fair to established brick-and-mortar restaurants in those areas, said Will Wong, the city’s community development director. Currently, Maria’s Mexican Tacos, which has a restaurant in Bowman, is the only food truck operating in those regions, but the rules would set the stage for any others that would look toward serving Auburn in the future. Davin Vculek, owner of the Krush Burger truck in Sacramento, said these early stages of policy creation can be critical. “They’re very important, because what happens, and we’ve seen it here in Sacramento, is when an ordinance goes on the books, it takes time to get it off,” Vculek said. “So even if an ordinance is not lawful it can still negatively affect a food truck owner.” Wong said the planning commission staff worked closely with the city attorney to ensure the proposed rules could not be challenged in court. He said the commission referenced a survey conducted by the League of California Cities that looked at the mobile food vendor regulations for 20 to 30 different municipalities. The current policy that allows the vendors a 30-minute stop at a private property is based on Sacramento’s rule, Wong said. “Even in the beginning we had looked at other cities a year and a half ago when the first food truck came in for a business license,” Wong said. “So we’re well aware of the issues for other cities.” Bigger cities, bigger rules Mobile food vendor regulations have been a sizzling issue in the state’s capital, and progress toward reaching a common ground between the city, the trucks and the restaurants has been slow. On Tuesday, changes to Sacramento’s current ordinance went before the Law and Legislation committee, but legal concerns were raised and further discussion is to take place on Oct. 16. Among the proposed changes are extending the time vendors can operate at a location from 30 minutes to 90 minutes or two hours, depending on the street, and they would have to be a block away from other restaurants. The proposal also included banning food trucks from Old Town Sacramento. Council member Sandy Sheedy raised issue with the restaurant buffer zone and Old Town mandate, questioning their legality and saying she doesn’t want the city to be sued. “There’s some toxic stuff here we need to look at,” Sheedy said at Tuesday’s meeting. “And I think before we do any real substantive voting we need to get it cleaned up.” The threat of litigation is real. Last year, the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association filed a lawsuit against the city of Monrovia for its food truck regulations, which included banning the vendors from the city’s Old Town district. In September, the city and the association reached an agreement to lift the ban, according to the Los Angeles Times. SocalMFVA also has filed lawsuits against Arcadia, City of Industry, South Pasadena and West Hollywood, the Times reported. “We have been very patient as a food truck group,” Vculek said. “Very early on, we could have gone the legal route, but that’s not what we wanted to do.” The new proposed rules in Sacramento spawned from multiple meetings between owners of both restaurants and food trucks, Vculek said. “We’ve tried to work with the city, and we finally made some headway and got to a point where we felt like it was really going to happen just probably two months ago,” he said, “we left a meeting where restaurants agreed, food trucks agreed, nobody got everything they wanted but everyone got something they could live with. “…Who knows what’s going to happen now.” Krush Burger, formerly known as Mini Burger, has been operating in the Sacramento area for nearly two years, and Vculek said a new 2,500 square-foot brick-and-mortar restaurant is in the works. When it opens, his business will grow from eight employees to more than 20, he said. Vculek won’t be the first mobile vendor in to set up a stationary shop in Sacramento. This year alone, mobile vendors Drewski’s Hot Rod Kitchen and Mama Kim’s Korean BBQ opened restaurants and Coast to Coast Sandwiches reportedly has plans to do so as well. “Food trucks are a catalyst for more things to come,” Vculek said. Roseville reaches out The city of Roseville is hoping that’s the case. Unlike Sacramento where navigating the red tape can be a challenge, Roseville has no regulations placed on mobile food vendors, and city spokesperson Megan MacPherson said there aren’t plans to make any. “We took a look at the situation, and there has not been a big problem with food trucks,” MacPherson said. “Not only is there not a big problem, we’re actually encouraging them to do a monthly festival on the same street where we already have restaurants, and that is supported by our merchants.” The Roseville City Council approved funds to support a monthly mobile food truck event downtown through June, when it will be up for evaluation, she said. The first Mobile Food Mania on Sept. 13 featured 10 food trucks and enough pedestrian traffic to keep both mobile vendors and local restaurants satisfied, MacPherson said. The hope is that the event will draw more visitors to the area, she said. Vculek, who participated in the festival, pointed to Roseville, Rancho Cordova and West Sacramento as cities that have been food-truck friendly. Contrastingly, regulations in Sacramento and San Francisco have presented challenges, he said. In San Francisco, before a mobile food vendor can set up at a location it must to request a permit, which is followed by a notice sent to all businesses, property owners and residents within 300 feet to solicit any protests within 30 days. If a protest is filed, it then gets discussed at a public hearing followed by a ruling from the city’s Department of Public Works. “I think the state of California right now is very pro food trucks,” Vculek said. “It doesn’t give the cities too much opportunity to write their own restrictions. “We’ve always, from the beginning, wanted to work with restaurants. … I think we can all coexist.” Auburn Planning Commission Chairman Matt Spokely, who along with Commissioner Alan Young voted in favor of the regulations, said he hopes food trucks will have a place in Auburn’s future. “What we’re trying to do is kind of establish a basis or a set of ground rules that everybody can live with,” Spokely said, “as these hopefully become more popular and prevalent in town.”