By Jared Whitlock | TheCoastNews.com
ENCINITAS — A food fight may be brewing in downtown Encinitas. More than 20 brick-and-mortar restaurants recently signed a letter addressed to the Downtown Encinitas Merchants Association (DEMA) expressing their concerns about a weekly gathering of mobile food trucks. Some of the restaurants say the food trucks are unfair because they siphon customers and eat away at their profits.
The Black Sheep, a yarn shop located off of Coast Highway 101, began hosting food trucks earlier this month in its parking lot. Many residents have flocked to the event, known as “Food Truck Fridays,” every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m.
Phillip Drew, the co-owner of Encinitas Pizza Company, inked his restaurant’s name to the letter that went to DEMA. Drew said he’s conflicted by the food trucks at The Black Sheep.
“I’m pro business and respect The Black Sheep for doing what they have to in order to survive,” Drew said. “At the same time, we’re a new business that’s careful with every penny. So we’re watching the situation.”
Even though he’s torn, he called talk of any ordinances or bans on food trucks “premature.”
“My first inclination isn’t that ordinances solve things,” Drew said. “It’s best to talk through issues. You have to ask if the food trucks have an unfair advantage. The jury is still out for me, but it’s fair to look at their impact.”
Karen Henderson, who has owned The Black Sheep for more than 30 years, said she didn’t intend to create any kind of controversy. The food trucks are allowed to operate on her parking lot once a week in exchange for The Black Sheep getting a percentage of sales, she said.
Henderson noted she’d heard whisperings that nearby restaurants were unhappy with the food trucks, but none had contacted her directly. On the other hand, she believes the event, which started with four food trucks and now includes six, has been well received by foodies thus far. Henderson hopes more people will weigh in on the food trucks at The Black Sheep.
“We’re looking for feedback,” Henderson said. We want to sit down with restaurant owners and talk to the community. If this is something that people believe is positive, then we’re happy to continue. If people largely have negative opinions, we want to hear and we’ll reconsider what we’re doing.”
She may not be able to count on support from downtown restaurants. Part of the restaurants’ letter to DEMA states: “The food trucks are taking away business from our local downtown restaurants that pay rent, taxes and donate regularly to DEMA events.”
Dody Crawford, executive director of DEMA, said she hasn’t seen the letter yet. To her knowledge, she said this is the first time a large number of restaurants in Encinitas have raised concerns over food trucks.
Crawford said she isn’t aware of any other local food truck gatherings.
The organization has “mulled over the issue,” but DEMA hasn’t taken a stance on the food trucks at The Black Sheep yet, according to Crawford. DEMA doesn’t have the authority to regulate the food trucks. But it’s likely the restaurants are seeking the organization’s backing should they talk with other groups or go before City Council to request any action on the food trucks, she said.
One option at the city’s disposal: an ordinance on food trucks.
Cities in California and throughout the U.S. are considering or have passed food ordinances that restrict food trucks from operating near restaurants. Not all of the ordinances, however, have been successful. For instance, El Paso, Texas last year overturned a 2009 ordinance forbidding food trucks from operating within 1,000 feet of an established restaurant after being sued by food truck owners.
Some California cities have slapped buffer ordinances affecting food trucks that park in private or public areas, only to be overruled by sections of the California Vehicle Code that say food trucks can only be regulated in the interest of public safety, not public well being.
Christian Murcia, the owner of Crepes Bonaparte, one of the food trucks that is a part of the weekly event at The Black Sheep, called ordinances that curtail food trucks’ rights “a misguided waste of taxpayer money.”
Crepes Bonaparte sets up shop throughout San Diego County, often relying on social media to alert customers to its whereabouts, Murcia said. He noted business has been solid in Encinitas. But pushed back against claims his food truck is taking a chunk from local restaurants’ bottom lines.
“I don’t think we directly compete,” he said. “We’re a different kind of offering,” adding that he believes a group of food trucks can generate a crowd, benefiting surrounding businesses.
While Murcia acknowledges food trucks may not have as much red tape as restaurants to cut through when opening up, he said there’s also a misconception that food trucks don’t pay any rent.
“We pay fees to the property we’re operating on; we rarely operate on public streets,” he said. “And we have our own challenges — we can’t store food and it’s harder to build up clientele.”
According to Assistant City Manager Richard Phillips, Encinitas hasn’t passed any specific ordinances that govern where and when food trucks can serve customers.
Phillips said the food trucks in Encinitas are subject to the same code and parking requirements as other vehicles. The food trucks also have to meet health standards laid out by the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, and under new rules, food trucks countywide will soon be required to display the same health inspection letter grades as restaurants.
Additionally, food trucks have to file an Encinitas business license. Thirteen food trucks have an active license, according to Phillips.
Scott Lucksanalamai, operations and events manager for Thai 1 On Eats, another food truck that parks at The Black Sheep once a week, said operating in Encinitas has been relatively easy. The event is a positive in his book.
“I believe it brings good to the city of Encinitas,” Lucksanalamai said. “This food truck gathering is now one of the best in San Diego.”