CITY HALL — A new policy dictating the selection of prepared food vendors at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is drawing fire from Main Street merchants who are concerned that there won’t be enough preference given to local restaurants.
The issue was raised during a City Council meeting on Tuesday when city staff presented a comprehensive set of new rules, regulations and policies for the operation and management of the four popular markets in Santa Monica, governing activities of certified farmers, retail activities and musical entertainment, and prepared food vendors.
It was the latter that garnered the most attention after several members of the Main Street business community asked that more weight be given to local merchants when selecting vendors for the prepared food section of the Sunday market, which is held at The Victorian.
The new policy awards points to applicants who meet certain criteria, including up to 20 points for business location with prospective vendors located within the district receiving the maximum. Applicants can also receive up to 20 points for management experience, 20 points for sustainability and sourcing, 15 points for years of service in the Farmers’ Market, and 40 points for food quality, a criteria that some council members said was too subjective.
“If you ask everyone in this room to name their favorite Chinese restaurant, you are going to get 25 different answers,” Councilwoman Gleam Davis said. “What tastes great to me might not taste great to someone else.”
The council approved the comprehensive policy with the exception of the scoring sheet and section on prepared food vendors, asking that city staff rework them to address concerns.
Andy Agle, the director of housing and economic development, said that during the drafting of the proposed rules, he received comments from the Main Street Business Improvement Association that any merchant located in the district who submits a proposal to provide prepared food be guaranteed a space in the market.
“We recommend businesses in the local district be granted preference in the selection process but that other factors also be considered and we think the core of this issue relates to what is the mission of the Farmers’ Market,” Agle said. “While supporting the local business district is part of the mission, we think other factors come into place, such as supporting healthy foods, sustainability, high quality products and experience and diversity of offerings.”
Gary Gordon, the executive director of the association, said the businesses on Main Street are hurting in the economic downturn, stressing that while the market has done its part to improve the community, it has also created problems for local merchants.
He asked that several additional categories be included in the scoring sheet for the selection process, giving points to businesses that are green certified. Businesses that participate in the citywide Buy Local campaign should also be awarded points, Gordon added.
“We don’t take a position that there should be no outside vendors, we just take a position that the Main Street food establishments should come first,” he said.
Not all Main Street business owners agreed that the market has been hurting merchants.
Richard Karno, who owns Groundwork, was one of the founders of the Main Street market, serving coffee there since its inception.
“It’s the outside vendors who take the change and they come in and they establish the market and they get it rolling and they get the momentum going and they get the people coming in,” he said. “And then what happens is the surrounding merchants realize it’s viable and then they want to come in.”
Karno said he believes that the market has brought new people to Main Street who otherwise might not have come.
Janabai Amsden, who owns Euphoria Loves Rawvolution, was approved as a vendor in the market after trying for three years. Amsden was then told she could not sell items that were sold by other raw food vendors at the market.
She was also told she could not sell chocolate because there was already another vendor there who did.
“These businesses that take up booths at the market are also using Main Street resources that are not available to businesses that pay three times higher rent on average to be there,” Amsden said. “We lose parking spaces, we do not have benefits of free parking provided by the city, we don’t have benefits of the bike valet, we pay business taxes and we also pay Main Street assessment fees that are quite high.
“I paid almost $4,000 this year just to be in Santa Monica.”
Councilman Bob Holbrook suggested reserving a minimum of four slots in the prepared food section for local businesses. The next nine slots can go to the next highest point receiver, whether they are from the local business district or not, he said.
Several council members also expressed concerns with restricting vendors from selling a certain type of food if another vendor already sells it.
“I don’t understand that at all,” Councilman Bobby Shriver said. “I think there should be more competition.”
Lisa Nguyen, who owns Carbon Grill and has been at the market for 10 years, said she doesn’t believe that the market has hurt businesses on Main Street.
Carbon Grill is not based in Santa Monica.
“We can bring five to 10,000 people on a Sunday morning … for 3.5 hours,” she said. “People stay on Main Street and shop around and they come on a weekly basis.”