SM BLVD — The evolution of the food truck phenomenon in Southern California officially entered a new phase on Monday with the debut of the “Santa Monica Gourmet Food Truck Corner” — the area’s first attempt at creating a permanent gathering place for mobile vendors to hawk their meals.
Located in a vacant lot at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 14th Street, for truck operators the appeal is to avoid pesky city parking restrictions. For foodies, the makeshift food court promises to offer a rotating roster of gourmet trucks serving lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday.
A lunch crowd began to gather about noon on Monday, many of them notified about the kick-off via the social networking Web site Twitter. There were four trucks on hand for the “soft opening,” with organizers promising seven to 12 trucks per day as word spreads.
Ross Klein and two colleagues drove from Century City after hearing about the lot through a Web site.
“I’d come here every day if I could,” Klein said after finishing a meal from India Jones Chow Truck. “This is heaven.”
In a way, the lot is a perfect example of recession-inspired entrepreneurial spirit. Both the vendors and the man who owns the lot, Steve Taub, saw the venture as a solution to an economic problem.
Taub said he bought the property two years ago with thoughts of leasing it to a car dealership but found that demand had fallen off. After trying to operate a used car business himself on the site, he recently closed up shop. He credits his real estate broker, Barbara Tenzer, with coming up with the food court idea to wring revenue from the property.
Taub said he plans to charge the vendors a daily rent for using the property but declined to specify how much.
Meanwhile, the owners of gourmet food trucks — there’s now more than 50 trucks in the Los Angeles area — are finding themselves under pressure from restaurants that say the trucks swoop in and steal customers while avoiding the overhead costs that “brick and mortar” places pay.
From the Third Street Promenade to Abbot Kinney to Downtown Los Angeles, food vendors say it’s becoming more difficult to do business in the most popular spots. They also worry new regulations could be in the pipeline.
In Santa Monica, the Bayside District Corp., which manages Downtown, has already said it will formally ask the City Council to look into additional restrictions for food vendors.
Suzanne Pardal, whose husband owns India Jones, said it’s already near impossible to do business next to Third Street.
“We’ve been chased out of a lot of places,” she added.
Enter the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, the brand new entity that’s responsible for bringing vendors on board with the food court idea. Besides setting up the lot, the group is aiming to advocate for food truck vendors the same way restaurant associations represent their members.
Matthew Geller, vice president of the association, said the vendors need a unified voice, especially as jurisdictions consider ways to regulate food trucks. He said he hopes the association can help vendors “self regulate” and prevent cities from enacting stricter operating rules.
The association launched on Sunday and so far has gathered about 17 members. Geller said the truck owners are happy to work together.
“They’re in competition with each other but everybody wants to see everybody succeed. They’re friendly competitors,” he said.
One vendor at the lot on Monday, Takeshi Kimura, owner of Fishlips Sushi, said the lot offers a welcome refuge from seeking out parking on the street. He said when he parks in Little Tokyo he’s used to being harassed by restaurant owners.
“Some people tell [you to leave] nicely, but some people not,” he said.
Coleen Craig, managing partner of Don Chow Tacos and a co-founder of the vendors association, agreed doing business on private property beats life on the streets.
“It’s a more controlled environment. We don’t have to fight for parking,” she said.
On Monday, customers, too, were allowed free parking on part of the lot.
While the Santa Monica Police Department said there were no complaints or incidents related to the lot by Monday afternoon, City Hall’s code compliance department is reviewing the situation to see if the food court is allowed under city zoning laws.
Pat Martin, a code compliance officer, said “there possibly could be some zoning violations” but added that it’s routine for City Hall to review a new business venture for compliance. He said he expects City Hall to make a determination by today.