MAIN STREET — Restaurant owners here want preferential treatment at their home-turf Farmers’ Market and say City Hall is dragging its feet on giving them the competitive edge they deserve.
At issue is how City Hall selects vendors to sell prepared food at 13 booths available at the market each Sunday. With its mix of produce sellers, retailers, live music and food, the Main Street market attracts at least 5,000 customers each week, organizers said.
Through their association, the Main Street Business Improvement Association, the 45 or so restaurants with storefronts on the street have argued they should be heavily favored for the food vending slots over businesses from out of the area that don’t contribute as much to the local tax base.
Only one of the food vendors who regularly participates in the market, Groundwork Coffee, has a brick-and mortar store on Main Street, and nine of the vendors don’t have stores anywhere in Santa Monica, said Jodi Low, who manages the market.
The City Council discussed revamping City Hall’s policy for selecting vendors in November but has yet to adopt a change. Thursday morning about 10 restaurant owners and managers met with City Hall staff members involved with the market, urging quick action to give locals preference over other competitors.
In an often heated discussion, the owners said they were frustrated that it’s still unclear how City Hall wants to proceed and a solution appears to be a ways off.
Low said she expects the City Council to again consider updating its policy in April. If approved, a new selection process for vendors wouldn’t take effect until October, she said.
On Thursday, Miriam Mack, economic development manager at City Hall, said a range of solutions remain on the table, from banning food vendors at the market outright, to allowing only Main Street merchants to sell food, to coming up with a new set of criteria to select eligible businesses to participate.
For their part, the restaurant owners have put forward a proposal that gives preference to Main Street businesses but takes other factors like sustainability and use of local produce into account.
Gary Gordon, head of the MSBA, said the restaurants think they’ve put together a reasonable solution that would win City Council support. Several council members, he said, expressed support in November for a plan that would favor Main Street restaurants.
He said City Hall staff has “taken just a ridiculously long amount of time to get this done and I think it’s been to the detriment to businesses on the street.”
He said he’s been expecting City Hall to update its policy to favor locals for the past two and a half years.
“Yes, it has been a long process,” Low said. But she defended City Hall’s methods, saying a policy change has the potential to disrupt a market that most people view as a success.
“We really, really want to do it right and there are so many factors to take into account,” she said.
She said it’s unclear how altering the food vendor status quo would affect the market. A new survey to gauge customers’ opinions of the market’s different sections is being planned, she said.
Meanwhile, several restaurant operators said there’s an urgent need for a policy change.
“These restaurants are under siege right now by other vendors that are coming into the market,” said Joe Pipersky, who owns Joe’s Diner and Holy Guacamole, both located on Main Street. He said businesses are at risk of going under.
“This city is in grave danger. Most of these businesses are being shocked by the economy,” he said.
It’s unclear how many Main Street restaurant owners want to participate in the market. Several restaurant operators at the meeting Thursday said they weren’t interested in having a booth but believed City Hall’s policy should nevertheless favor their colleagues on Main Street.
Another issue that arose in November was how tightly food vendors’ offerings should be controlled. The current selection process favors selecting vendors that provide a mix of food types in the market. For Janabai Amsden, who owns Euphoria Loves Rawvolution on Main Street, that criterion posed a problem. She said when she briefly participated in the market she was told she couldn’t sell some of her raw items because other booths were offering similar products.
She and other Main Street owners said they think City Hall should stop micro-managing vendors and should give preference to local owners, regardless of their offerings.
Amsden said it’s disappointing Main Street owners will have to wait at least until October for a new selection process.
“I’ve seen restaurants come and go out of business in less time than that,” she said.