DOWNTOWN — The marinated Korean beef short ribs, organic salads and Vietnamese grilled pork sandwiches might be mouth-watering to the long lines of patrons they attract, but the recent influx of the mobile food fad into Santa Monica isn’t as welcomed by the established restaurant owners with whom they directly compete.
The increased presence of the reinvented food truck, a drastic image change from the “roach coach” favorite of construction workers, has recently been the subject of concern in Downtown where restaurant owners complain about customers lost to a mobile entity that neither has to pay rent nor assessment fees to conduct business in a coveted location.
While Mexican taco trucks have long been fixtures in Santa Monica, joined several years ago by the organic Green Truck, the latest food trend exploded in the local scene recently with the arrival of Kogi, which sells Korean-inspired barbecue beef tacos, the similar Calbi Korean BBQ and the Nom Nom Truck, which serves Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. Beverly Hills-based Sprinkles has also joined the fad, launching the new Sprinklesmobile, selling cupcakes at the Brentwood Country Mart on 26th Street.
The issue was discussed during the Bayside District Corp.’s board meeting on Thursday when representatives from the Santa Monica Police Department gave a brief presentation about current regulations for mobile food vendors. The board referred the matter to the Land & Asset Committee for further review.
“I think if these people benefit from the Bayside District, they should have to pay for it,” Barbara Bryan, a board member who owns the Interactive Cafe on Broadway, said.
All mobile food trucks are required to have a vendor permit through the SMPD and business license from City Hall to legally operate. The trucks can conduct business in any legal parking spot but are limited to 30 minutes after which they must move at least 100 feet away, Officer Mike Rosenberg said.
The trucks must also be located at least 10 feet away from the entrance, doors, vestibules, driveways and outdoor dining areas of any business.
Rosenberg said he receives complaints from restaurants that the trucks are often in the same location for several hours. The truck owners however have countered that it takes longer than 20 to 30 minutes to fill the orders.
The mobile trucks were previously not an issue because they either pulled up into construction sites or drove to areas where there was ample parking, Rosenberg said.
“But now they are on Twitter and have become upscale and since they have become upscale, they move into the Downtown area … and are in direct competition (with restaurants),” he said.
He said several vendors have been cited.
The trucks have also made appearances on Main Street.
“We would like to get rid of them,” Gary Gordon, the executive director of the Main Street Business Improvement Association, said.
Gordon said he isn’t sure whether the trucks could be banned altogether but would like to see the ordinance changed to prohibit their presence within 20 feet of any business.
Rob Rader, a member of the Bayside board, said he believes there is an opportunity to manage the trucks similar to the cart program on the Third Street Promenade, which is handled through a third-party. The carts pay a fee, similar to rent.
“Instead of rejecting it, we should embrace it,” he said.
John Warfel, a board member, suggested that the trucks be strategically placed in low-traffic areas where existing businesses could benefit from the traffic that the mobile food vendors draw.
But he cautioned that it could also very easily make the issue worse, attracting even more trucks and having a situation that is similar to the current oversaturation of taxicabs in Santa Monica.
Food truck owners like Davis Stankunas, who started Nom Nom with friends Jennifer Green and Marisa Chien nearly seven weeks ago, said he prefers to do business outside of Downtown and doesn’t want to step on the toes of any restaurant owners.
“We want to be as respectful as possible to other businesses,” he said. “If we’re parked next to a restaurant, they will not take that lightly and they have the right to alert local authorities.”
The truck typically drives to corporate buildings, such as the Lionsgate back lot on Colorado Avenue. He noted that the larger offices are good sources for business because word spreads fast among coworkers when the trucks arrive.
The idea for a Vietnamese sandwich business on wheels came to the three UCLA graduates in March as they talked about having to drive to the San Gabriel Valley or Westminster to buy banh mi. The trio developed their own recipes and started business just several months later.
Local workers who have tried the new food trucks said they should be regulated but hope it doesn’t drive them away.
“If they are competing with restaurants, they should be as regulated,” Brian Schwartz, who has eaten at Green Truck, said.
Alexie Rubin, an intern at the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, said she has eaten at Kogi, calling it “tasty.”
Rubin suspects the mobile food vendors overall would decrease if more heavily regulated, but believes the number of Kogi trucks would remain because they are more “sought after.”
“It should meet the same standards as restaurants,” she said. “Just because it’s street food, it still represents a restaurant.”
Derrick Oliver contributed to this report