Mountain View Voice

Opinion - March 30, 2012

Food trucks need some rules

In the last decade or two, Castro Street has developed into a must-visit destination for Bay Area restaurant-goers who want to sample a wide variety of ethnic cuisines. This incredibly successful transition from what once was a moribund downtown into a vibrant restaurant row jammed with hungry patrons and outdoor seating has put Mountain View on the map as a place to enjoy and explore the world's most popular cuisines.

So it is not surprising that restaurant owners — who have made major investments in their properties — are concerned about the potential pressure from food truck operators who want to elbow their way into this lucrative marketplace. These mobile operations offer fast service and fill take-out orders from customers who might otherwise book a table at a restaurant.

With owner-operators behind the wheel and behind the serving counter, the trucks escape a wide range of the overhead costs that a typical restaurant must pay every day, including payroll, rent, employee insurance and a host of others. Food trucks can start their business with a much smaller investment than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, and can park anywhere there is space unless a city ordinance forbids it.

And unlike the "roach coaches" of days gone by, these modern food trucks often serve artisan food and market themselves on sites like Twitter and Facebook to let their customers know where they will set up shop on any given day. It is a sophisticated sales effort that costs little but is highly effective among the city's tech-savvy crowd.

After hearing from the city's code enforcement officer about the questions raised by this new (for Mountain View) business model, last week the City Council decided it will begin work on updating the 56-year-old food truck ordinance, which only sets rules about trucks visiting job sites. We expect there will be a spirited discussion about where the trucks will be allowed to park, and how long they will be able to stay.

The officer, Chris Costanzo, explained that he has been fielding a "...significant increase in complaints, questions and concerns from residents, neighboring businesses, business associations and food truck operators themselves," about how the trucks will be governed in the city.

"They (the food truck operators) have questions, as to how, when and where they can operate in Mountain View," he said.

City Attorney Jannie Quinn, who will have her hands full in drafting a new ordinance, said that the trucks had to get a temporary permit to park near the Thursday Night Live events downtown last year. Developing a permanent plan will be much more difficult.

Other cities, including San Francisco, have struggled to balance the needs of food trucks and restaurant owners, who ultimately compete for the same customers. With thousands of fans here, the council will have to accommodate the trucks, hopefully without hurting the restaurant owners who have built the bustling restaurant row on Castro Street from the ground up.

Possible regulations that have been used in other cities include requiring food trucks to stay 1,000 feet or more from middle or high schools when school is in session; set a limit on the number of sites allocated to each applicant; obey all parking regulations and alert restaurants or other businesses within several hundred feet of a proposed food truck location.

As the new regulations move through the City Council process, we expect there will be disagreements among the various interest groups, but given the volatility of this issue, the council is wise to tackle it now.

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