by Stephen Box for MobileFoodNews.com | Candidate for L.A. City Council
Nothing stirs controversy like success and the recent popularity of LA’s specialty Food Trucks has City Hall scratching their collective heads as they grapple with the social phenomenon that has Angelenos tracking the likes of Fishlips, Frysmith, Dogzilla, King Kone and other expressions of LA’s Food Truck Culture.
LA County has more than 4000 Food Trucks on the streets but it is the 400 specialty trucks that trigger the latest version of the traditional LA celebrity sighting. Foodies regularly Tweet the locations of their favorites and follow the rock star Trucks such as Don Chow, India Jones, Coolhaus, Dosa, Nom Nom, Buttermilk and the wildly popular Grilled Cheesed Truck.
The success of the Food Truck phenomenon is so great that some locals, from residents to brick-and-mortar restaurant operators, have cried “Foul!” and turf wars have erupted over parking spaces, traffic congestion, impact to the community and simple competition.
This prompted the City of LA to jump in feet first and the City Council introduced motions that sought to restrict Food Trucks. Meanwhile, local leaders from the community and the Food Truck industry have demonstrated the type of leadership that belongs in City Hall, embracing the confusion, conflict, controversy, and looking for the common ground.
The Downtown Art Walk regularly draws 24 thousand people to its 2nd Thursday event, challenging the organizational and diplomatic skills of the community leaders who started the event years ago in an effort to enhance the sense of community in their neighborhood. It worked. It also demanded that they respond to the needs of brick-and-mortar restaurants, the street vendors, the food trucks and the many patrons who simply wanted to spend money. With success came challenges but the Art Walk leadership looked for common ground and created a win-win-win situation.
It’s reported that some operators of traditional restaurants such as the Black Dog seized on the presence of the Food Trucks, not as the enemy out to cannibalize, but as a draw. The Black Dog now features longer hours, an enhanced menu, and a unique niche that offers choices to the increased customer traffic in the community and has demonstrated the benefit of competition.
Food Truck operators have long been a staple on the streets of LA and the availability of late night tacos is part of the unique character of LA’s food scene. The recent boom in Food Truck variety has led to “Restaurant Row” style events that offer a rotating selection of cuisine and enhancements that turn simple street food into a “happening!”
Last weekend, the RoseBowl hosted the LA Street Food Fest featuring over 60 trucks, a $45 cover charge and unlimited dining. Celebrity chefs, including Sue Feniger and Walter Manske, judged the participants, awarding street cred to vendors in categories that included Best Old School Street Food, Best Nouveau Street Food, The Sweet Tooth and Best in Show.
This ain’t construction site food, folks.
LA’s Food Truck phenomenon is part of our unique street culture and it is an expression of mobility that brings our streets to life. It is an economic boom that City Hall should embrace and support looking for win-win opportunities that connect us, not divide us.
Imagine how community events can benefit from the participation of the Food Trucks. East Hollywood ArtCycle took place on Santa Monica Boulevard between Vermont and Virgil, featuring bands, artists, crafters, bike tours and a major street was brought to life with the presence of thousands of people. 18 Food Trucks were a vital part of the celebration and partners in a successful event.
The LA Chapter of the American Planning Association recently hosted their awards event, looking for a transit accessible, historic venue with a connection to a vibrant street life. They chose the El Portal Theatre in NoHo for its cultural legacy and for its close proximity to the Red and Orange Lines, and then they brought the street to life by stationing Food Trucks on the street and hosting the reception on the sidewalk, opening up the street and connecting.
Through it all, there exists controversy, most often when City Hall intervenes and clouds the water.
The most recent brouhaha broke out on Wilshire Boulevard when the Museum Square restaurants encountered competition from Food Trucks and which resulted in a turf war that resulted in small platoons of motorists trolling Wilshire in the morning, seizing parking spaces and holding them for the duration of the day to deny parking for the Food Trucks.
All of which creates a scenario that begs for leadership, not simply in negotiating parking spaces, trash pickup and cooperative business practices, but in addressing the need to support small businesses and look for opportunities to support an economic boom that should be encouraged, not restricted.
The City of LA goes to great lengths to support and enhance valet parking, taxi cab parking, tour bus parking, FedEx & UPS parking, and general delivery parking, all in an effort to improve the viability of the individual operators and the customers they serve.
This isn’t a restriction but an enhancement, meant to offer specific support. If anything, this is an opportunity to embrace a challenge and to support the success of the small businesses on wheels.
LA has ample regulations on the books that apply to Food Trucks, from health standards to parking to operations, and the notion that the conflict caused by the recent success warrants more regulation is folly. If anything, this is an opportunity to refine the code to support a vibrant industry and an economic opportunity.
One of the simplest barometers of social justice and economic parity is the availability of quality food.
From grocery stores to farmers markets to restaurants, neighborhoods have long gauged their “completeness” on quality options for shopping, for entertaining, and for casual dining.
The Food Truck industry offers brick-and-mortar businesses an opportunity to expand their customer base while offering start-ups an opportunity to refine their menu and connect with the community, leading some to establish fixed locations for their restaurants. In other words, it creates a symbiotic relationship that resonates through a community.
It also offers LA an opportunity to be creative, addressing situations that have been taken for granted. In the Entertainment Industry, location shoots succeed and fail based on the Producer’s ability to feed the tired and hungry crew.
Many long location shoots have been saved by an industrious Production Manager who can drum up a BBQ in the middle of the night or get the Cuban Coffee served fresh to a tired crew. Would supporting the Food Trucks be an opportunity to support the Entertainment Industry?
Recent emergency events in our community have dramatized the simple need to be ready to mobilize food and the Griffith Park fire, the Station fire, and the Metrolink crash all included challenges that a Food Truck fleet can address.
In the Metrolink tragedy, local neighborhood council members simply bought all the food they could carry from local restaurants and hopped a fence in order to feed the emergency workers who went around the clock and were fading from hunger.
In both the Griffith Park and Station fires, the evacuation centers were isolated and feeding the people turned out to be a challenge that a booming Food Truck industry can address. Would connecting with our Food Truck neighbors be an investment in Emergency Preparedness?
The times are changing and the Farmers Markets that were once a novelty are now the norm. City Hall even hosts a weekly Farmers Market and on Thursdays there is a sense of place on the south lawn. There were challenges, there were adjustments but that was then and this is now. The same is true for the Food Truck boom.
The flexibility and mobility of the Food Trucks allows a partnership with underserved communities and neighborhoods that can revitalize and pollinate, providing a service that will actually reduce car trips by servicing dense business parks with limited choice. It also allows a community to demonstrate a need, attracting traditional food service operators to partner with a community.
LA is the Capital of Diversity and the Food Truck Industry is an expression of all that is great about Los Angeles. There’s the Gastrobus that partners with Farmers Markets and only serves locally sourced food and there’s the GreenTruck that features a solar powered commissary, veggie fueled truck, organic food and sustainable packaging.
Ultimately, there’s something for everybody and the mobile platform allows for the trial-and-error innovation that is such a part of the Los Angeles legacy.
The City of LA is faced with a rare challenge, managing and encouraging success, and it is imperative that we work together to support the dialogue and look for common ground that is good for the community, good for the small business operators and good for the customer.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)
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