MAIN STREET— If you frequent the tamale booth or the pastry table at the Main Street Farmers’ Market, you could be in for a surprise later this year when city officials unveil a new policy that’s likely to shake-up the mix of prepared food vendors allowed at that and other markets.
The City Council tonight is scheduled to vote on a new policy for picking food vendors at Santa Monica’s four markets, roughly three years after City Hall officials began working on a selection process overhaul.
While the council has wide leeway in deciding how staff should pick vendors, Farmers’ Market leaders say their recommended policy represents a compromise aimed at keeping the markets vibrant while giving local restaurant owners ample opportunity to participate.
Their proposal would replace a largely informal method for selecting vendors with a standardized process that favors local food sellers over businesses from out of the area.
Applicants would be selected through a rating system that would grade them on their sustainable practices, ingredient sourcing, experience selling at markets and the value of their menu items. They would also be given a bonus for having a brick and mortar location near a market, with the biggest bonus given to restaurant’s within a market’s business district.
The issue of food vendor selection has become most contentious at the Main Street Sunday market, which hosts more prepared food booths than any other market with 13 booths.
The proposed selection policy came out of negotiations between city staff and Gary Gordon, who heads the Main Street Business Improvement Association, the organization that represents restaurants and other businesses on the street.
In a concession to the association, the proposed new policy would go a step further at the Main Street market by reserving half the spaces available for prepared food (or half the total square footage available) for Main Street restaurant owners. The remaining spaces would be filled by applicants who would be selected under the same criteria used at other markets.
On Monday, though, Gordon said he was concerned City Hall had changed its stance on the compromise at the last minute, and sent an e-mail to council members stating that his members’ support for the deal may be off.
He said in negotiations both sides had agreed to use a specific “points system” that detailed how much weight would be given to each criterion. The system, he said, would award maximums of 30 points each for sustainability and ingredient sourcing, 10 points each for experience and product value, and 15 points for business location.
Farmers’ Market officials, though, decided not to incorporate the points system into the proposal before the council tonight, citing legal concerns.
Gordon said the points system was an important aspect of the compromise because it gave local restaurants an advantage for all available spaces at the market.
“Without the points included in the policy, you are left with just criteria,” he wrote in his e-mail to the City Council, which was obtained by the Daily Press. “Under this notion, over time, business location could become devalued and other criteria could be given greater weight; agreements made but not put in writing could be lost.”
Jodi Low, who manages the Main Street market, said regardless of whether the council approves the agreed upon points system, staff members responsible for selecting vendors will honor it.
“Absolutely, our intention is to keep our word,” she said.
Reached on Monday, City Attorney Marsh Moutrie said she did not direct staff members to remove the points system from the proposal before the council. She said the council has the authority to both set criteria for a selection process and to assign weight to them, but acknowledged there are some legal risks involved with doing so.
“Depending on the circumstances, it could appear that a council was setting up the weighting system to [favor a particular business] for political reasons,” she said.
There was nothing about the Farmers’ Market policy that raised such concerns, she added.
The issue of a City Council-approved weighting system notwithstanding, the proposed change has its critics both among longtime food vendors who may lose their spaces at markets and among Main Street business owners who say the proposed policy doesn’t go far enough to protect local restaurants.
Lisa Nguyen, a co-owner of the family-run catering company Carbon Grill, has been a fixture at the Main Street market for more than 10 years.
She said her booth, which sells breakfast burritos, quesadillas and wraps, has earned a loyal following over the years and now relies on business at the Sunday market for at least 35 percent of its sales each week. With the proposed new selection process, she’s afraid the business she runs with her parents and sisters out of a West Los Angeles kitchen could be at risk.
“We’ve really built it up all of these years,” she said. “Now that the Main Street restaurants are pretty much forcing their way through, there’s a possibility I might not be picked for one of those spots.”
For prepared food sellers from outside Santa Monica, the competition for spaces promises to be stiff.
Low said she’s expecting more than 100 applications for the six or so booths that will be available to non-Main Street businesses. In contrast, Gordon said he’s aware of between four and seven Main Street restaurants interested in participating in the market.
Joe Pipersky, though, who owns two restaurants on Main Street, Joe’s Diner and Holy Guacamole, said allowing any businesses from outside the immediate area to sell prepared food at the market amounts to unneeded competition for restaurants, which make up an important part of Santa Monica’s tax base.
“I don’t think they’re serving the community the way I do,” he said of the food vendors. “I think that they make it difficult for people like me to serve the community.”
If adopted tonight, Low said she expects to implement the new policy for selecting prepared food vendors in October. The recommended proposal also requires each market to dedicate one booth to local restaurants on a rotating basis.