Q&A with Matt Geller, CEO of Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association

By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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On Monday, the Auburn City Council is slated to review a proposed new set of food-truck rules that would include a ban from Old Town and Downtown Auburn. The Journal emailed questions to Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, to get his thoughts on the subject. What is your take on how Auburn is approaching the issue of mobile food trucks in the city thus far? Geller: New regulations should foster consumer choice and protect public safety. The Association has always advocated for sensible regulations that do not side with one segment of the food service industry over another segment. The whole concept of the government creating "a fair playing field" flies in the face of our market economy. I routinely ask city managers if they have any Blockbuster video stores in their city. Lately, the response has been, "No." I then ask if they attempted to block Netflix and Redbox from competing with those brick-and-mortar businesses. Netflix uses tax payer built roads and a federally subsidized delivery service to get their product to their customers. I have yet to see any creation of "a fair playing field" in that industry. I will say that the city managers of the cities in that area have reached out to me to create some good regulations, so that is very promising. How important are these early policy discussions for setting the tone for a city’s future with food trucks? Geller: It's important that cities understand that there are limitations to their power. California Vehicle Code 22455 doesn't allow cities to regulate on anything other than public safety. Anticompetitive regulations won't hold up and there has to be some verifiable safety concerns that the regulation the city wants to enact is addressing an actual safety concern. What are some California cities that have really embraced mobile food vendors? Which cities have really hindered food trucks? Geller: Los Angeles has a long history with trucks, and some favorable case law. As a result, L.A.'s regs are the most favorable. There have been efforts to change that, but the SoCalMFVA has really halted any new anti-food-truck regulations from being adopted. We do this by keeping the public informed. Santa Monica has taken a very healthy approach. They work with us, and when they feel there needs to be a regulation, they do the required assessments to ensure that the public's safety needs to be protected by a new regulation. They did this with a ban from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings on a street with lots of bars and intoxicated bar patrons. The trucks were blocking views and it could have become a serious safety hazard. They banned them on the main street, but they could post up on the side streets. The cities that are overstepping their authority, we approach and do our best to resolve issues without litigation. When a member has an issue with a city, we take it very seriously. How important of a time is this for food trucks in regard to the policies being made? Geller: Very important. Get organized. Get involved. We will help you. The policy makers are good at creating the discussion topics. It's important for trucks not to get sucked into arguments that revolve around "unfair competition" and "leveling the playing field." The real discussion is CONSUMER CHOICE and the free market. This incredible industry has succeeded because people want more choice not less. I frequently ask regulators/city officials if they want to be the guy that gets blamed for denying access to delicious food at reasonable prices. I wholeheartedly disagree with bringing restaurants into discussions about food truck regulations. They are not public safety experts and should be nowhere near these discussions. Cities that organize negotiations between food trucks and restaurants have a lack of understanding of their responsibilities. When two segments of the food service industry get together to decide how not to compete and how to split the consumer dollar, it is not compromise, it is collusion, and it is frowned upon in our state, and our country. In a time when cities welcome new business, why do some cities seem to be working against food trucks? Geller: Businesses don't like more competition. Businesses that have existing relationships with city officials can pick up the phone and ask for regulations that are favorable to their existing businesses. It's funny that regulators will use the term "leveling the playing field," because it's the exact opposite of what it means. "Leveling the playing field" is used to argue for allowing new entrants into an existing market dominated by well-positioned existing businesses. Existing restaurants are the ones with the power. How do the costs of running a mobile food truck compare to those of comparable local brick-and-mortar restaurants? Geller: There is this myth that food trucks don't cost anything to run. Ridiculous. Trucks can cost upwards of $125,000. California has the strictest building standards for trucks, so they are not cheap. Rentals are $2,000-$3,500 a month. Trucks must park at a commissary, another $1,000 a month. While a restaurant needs one health permit and one business license, many trucks have multiple permits and licenses for the various cities and counties. There are 88 cities in L.A. county. Add on gas, propane, insurance and you have some serious costs. The margins of both trucks and restaurants are similar. What kind of regulations are fair? Geller: Public safety regulations are fair. Things like how close a truck can park to an intersection as to avoid obstructing views. How close to a school during school hours. Trash clean up. How much progress has been made toward making California more food-truck friendly in the past year? Geller: We have made tremendous progress. Cities are changing regulations for the better in Southern California. Where would you like to eventually see it? Geller: Fair public safety regulations for street vending. Fair regulations for private property vending.