Palm Springs, NV: Palm Springs Food Truck Vendors Work Toward Approval

(Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)

By Barrett Newkirk  |  The Desert Sun

(Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)
(Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)

The owner of Woody’s Burgers, the downtown restaurant and music venue, is about to open his third location.

This time on wheels.

But instead of serving more burgers and fries in Palm Springs, Wayne Woodliff is sending his refurbished 1987 food truck to San Diego, where he opened a second restaurant last year and has dreams for further expansions.

“It’s an extremely viable way to build your business and test out interest in new locations before committing to a bricks-and-mortar business,” Woodliff said of food trucks, a popular piece of the culinary scene in major cities around the country that has yet to catch on in the Coachella Valley.

The main problem for Woodliff is uncertainty about the rules Palm Springs will impose on food trucks.

“I just have this feeling they’re going to make it so restrictive that it’s not going to be as financially viable as it could be,” he said, mentioning a past disagreement with city officials about a marquee sign he wanted to put outside his restaurant.

A Riverside County ordinance allowing daily food preparation and sales from food trucks took effect in April. The county Department of Environmental Health approved its first food truck permit last week to a business with a Los Angeles mailing address.

Five other vendors are working their way through the approval process, but none of those have come out of the Coachella Valley.

Prior to the new county ordinance, food trucks could only get permits for special events. The ordinance allows food trucks to work as mobile kitchens and sets up inspections similar to those for grounded restaurants.

Cities are free to pass their own limits on food trucks. Around the valley, those range from a ordinance in Cathedral City considered welcoming to food trucks to a temporary ban against food trucks on public streets in Palm Springs.

Tiffany Thorpe likes the idea of using a food truck to take her La Quinta bakery, Tiffany’s Sweet Spot, to new parts of the valley.

But after attending an informational meeting in January, she got the impression it was best to wait until the fall when more of city rules were in place.

There’s also the financial commitment that Thorpe put as high as $200,000.

“A lot of people have come in and said, ‘Oh, are you going to get a food truck?’ And we’re just not there yet,” she said this week.

The seasonality of the desert economy is another consideration for anyone thinking of starting a food truck, said Angela Janus, executive director of ShareKitchen, a food business incubator in Cathedral City that works with people interested in starting food trucks.

“You have to think about the summer months, too, when people are less likely to stand in line for the food trucks in the sun,” she said. “I think they’ll have a bang-up business just like everyone else for the other nine months.”

Janus called the Cathedral City food truck ordinance, approved June 11, “very open and very supportive.” It generally allows food trucks on public streets as long as no parking and vehicle codes are broken and the truck doesn’t block pedestrian or vehicle traffic. The ordinance sets other limitations, including that trucks no operate within 500 feet of schools between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on days when school is in session.

Palm Desert has signaled it may be more restrictive. The City Council in March passed an ordinance that food trucks can’t operate within 750 feet of established restaurants or bars. The council later approved a one-year moratorium on food trucks on any public streets so the city attorney could look into whether Palm Desert might face legal challenges to the rules.

Janus said the Palm Desert ordinance “was complex, to say the least.”

“When they saw that come out of Palm Desert, it was really kind of a reality check about how the food trucks will operate in the Coachella Valley,” she said about food truck operators.

ShareKitchen has looked at several locations to open a commissary, which give food truck operators a shared space to clean and house their trucks and access a larger commercial kitchen. But until cities finalize their rules, Janus said it’s hard to know how many trucks will have a viable chance for success in the valley, so ShareKitchen can’t be sure how much commissary space it needs.

The Palm Springs moratorium is set to expire Sept 18. City Manager David Ready said his goal is to present information to the City Council in July and have an ordinance ready for consideration in early September.

The moratorium does not block food trucks from serving customers on private property, he said.

City staff has met with downtown merchants and will also talk with people in the food truck industry as it works to craft the ordinance, Ready said.

The goal, he said, is to give the council an ordinance “that allows food trucks to operate but gives a reasonable assurance to our downtown merchants that they’re not going to be harmed by a food truck ordinance that allows them to operate too close to their restaurants.”

Exactly how the city can achieve that balance hasn’t been determined, Ready said.

Woodliff plans to have his food truck running in San Diego within the next few weeks. He believes Palm Springs offers the best environment for a successful food truck of any city in the valley, but he doesn’t expect the city to approve of his wish to park the truck outside the convention center or downtown late at night when bars clear out.

“Do you think they’re going to allow me to pull up the food truck right next to LuLu’s on Arenas? Hell no.”