CITYWIDE — If afflicted with the drunk munchies while wandering Main Street on a weekend, revelers have two options: Hit up Holy Guacamole, or walk to Los Angeles.
Such has been the effect of a ban on food trucks in the early morning weekend hours on the bar-lined portion of Main Street put in place in November at the request of police to prevent people from crowding into the streets around the mobile kitchens.
Since food trucks were banished from the area stretching from Ocean Park Boulevard to Marine Street between the hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., police have seen fewer crowds spilling into busy streets and crossing unsafely, wrote Lt. Jay Trisler in a memo to the City Council.
The problem hasn’t been solved completely, however.
Holy Guacamole, a taco-slinging establishment technically classified as a merchandise store, has a walk-up window that is attracting bar-goers now that their other destinations for a sloshy nosh have been taken from them.
Crowds are filling up the sidewalk waiting for a bite, and passers by are forced to enter the roadway to walk around the crowd, Trisler wrote.
Additionally, some food trucks are pushing the boundaries of the law, staying as long after 1 a.m. as possible before police tell them to move on.
For the most part, the community hasn’t been complaining too much, said Matthew Geller, spokesman for the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, an organization that’s sprung up to give guidance to and lobby for the budding industry.
Given food trucks’ mobility, their owners can adapt to the new regulations without too much trouble.
“The industry is really fluid,” Geller said. “They’ve posted out into the Los Angeles side and onto the side streets to make do with the new rules.”
At the November meeting, Geller warned council members that it was unfair to restrict food trucks but not brick-and-mortar establishments that would profit from their absence, like Holy Guacamole.
“One of the things we brought up was that sure, they’re concerned about food trucks, but if you had a take out window, it’s unfair to target one group and not the other, to which they responded, ‘Thank you,’” Geller said.
The association doesn’t feel the need to press too hard on the regulations, however, given the demonstrable problem shown in a two-minute video taken by police to illustrate the point.
The video, shown at the November meeting, shows people crowded around the trucks, walking out into the streets without the benefit of a crosswalk and sitting on curbs where other vehicles want to be.
“When it gets down to actual public safety impacts, it’s not one of those things you’re going to fight hard against,” Geller said.
Compared to other municipalities and even states, Santa Monica’s ban sounds justifiable, said Robert Frommer, an attorney for the Institute of Justice, an organization that has recently taken up the banner to protect mobile vendors.
The group goes through cities across the country to knock down anti-competitive and protectionist barriers, often put in place to protect entrenched interests like restaurant owners, Frommer said.
“What we see time and again are restaurant associations and other business groups going to local government and saying that we don’t want to compete with food trucks and don’t think it’s fair,” Frommer said. “They pass regulations that ban them or make it so difficult and unprofitable to work that no food trucks really start up to compete.”
The Institute for Justice managed to strike down a law in the city of El Paso, Texas that made it illegal for food trucks to set up within 1,000 feet of a restaurant or convenience store, which effectively banned trucks and other mobile vending from the entire city.
That fight launched the institute’s National Street Vending Initiative, Frommer said.
“You can’t use government power to pick winners and losers in the market,” Frommer said. “That’s the job of consumers. Consumers decide who they like and who they don’t.”
Over the past several years, the food truck industry has exploded, Frommer said.
It began in Los Angeles, where what used to be taco trucks transformed into gourmet restaurants on wheels with all the flavor and none of the overhead.
The Kogi truck, a Korean barbecue specialist, launched the concept by embracing social media to alert customers to their location to attract crowds.
It was novel: Customers lined up for hours to get a bite of Kogi’s unique tacos and burritos.
The success of food trucks spawned other kinds of businesses to help support the burgeoning industry, like manufacturers that convert old delivery trucks for food service, new insurance products in case a fender bender comes with a side of slaw and even classes at university business schools.