By Lori Weisberg | UT-San Diego
Gourmet food trucks have become a familiar presence in the county’s urban neighborhoods, suburban office parks, even on military bases. But now they’ve invaded downtown San Diego, and the reception — at least from local restaurateurs — hasn’t been exactly welcoming.
A weekly street closure that began this month to accommodate a special gathering of food trucks just steps from the Gaslamp Quarter has prompted cries of foul play from nearby businesses, who regard the mobile vendors as interlopers.
The trucks, they argue, are taking advantage of the extensive investment the historic district has made in marketing the area without making any financial contributions of their own.
Food truck operators counter that downtown represents yet another financially lucrative location where they can ply their mobile trade while satisfying the needs of time-pressed consumers looking for affordable, gourmet cuisine.
“When I came to San Diego in May of last year, I spent a lot of time doing market research and talking to operators down here, and what I heard from them is they got harassed by a lot of the police officers downtown, probably induced by the restaurants,” said Christian Murcia, owner of two food trucks and a company, Curbside Bites, which helped launch the downtown gathering.
Before venturing into downtown, Murcia had been content to roam the county’s suburbs in his white and red Crepes Bonaparte truck peddling made-to-order caprese, Brie and Nutella crepes.
“In San Diego, we wanted to first test the waters to see if we would have a problem parking our trucks down there, but now we’ve started these weekly street closures so we’d have an organized way to have food trucks and it wouldn’t be a free for all with trucks parking on the streets.”
In the last six months, Murcia has gained a toehold in downtown, where he parks his trucks on Friday and Saturday nights, selling food into the early morning hours. And in addition to the Thursday evening gathering on J Street between 3rd and 4th avenues, he’s launched a lunchtime food truck assembly on Wednesdays, in downtown, just north of Little Italy.
FOOD TRUCK EVENTS
Downtown, Columbia neighborhood: B Street between India and Columbia streets, Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Gaslamp Quarter: J Street between Third and Fourth avenues, Thursdays, 5:30 to 9 p.m.
What the Gaslamp restaurant owners say is especially vexing is that they weren’t even notified that a weekly street closure was being planned for an area that is typically congested on Thursday nights and where open parking spaces are scarce.
“I think it’s unbelievable that the city would block off the street and take away vital parking for the businesses without consulting them first,” said Philip Paccione, owner of Jolt’n Joe’s, a sports grill and event center, which he believes has suffered a 10 percent loss in sales since the weekly gathering of half a dozen trucks began.
“They don’t have the same restrictions and rent and overhead costs I have yet they can park right next door, sell at a cheaper price and steal our customers. They’re city-sanctioned squatters.”
The city’s special events department only requires that applicants notify those surrounding businesses and residents that are “directly impacted,” a definition that City Council President Todd Gloria believes may be too narrow.
He and other members of the City Council received emails from theGaslamp Quarter Association’s executive director, Jimmy Parker, who complained that area businesses were unfairly ignored when decisions were made to close J Street for a food truck assembly.
The city, he groused, should recognize the long-standing efforts made by area businesses and residents to revitalize the district and “protect them from those that look only to steal what they have built and continue to try to maintain.”
Gloria acknowledged he has to straddle a fine line between supporting the pioneering work of Gaslamp Quarter entrepreneurs while also helping promote new activities in the area that could bring more visitors to downtown.
“Rightly or wrongly, these trucks don’t pay into the assessment districts or pay for special events but are able to piggyback off those prior improvements, so I see that concern,” said Gloria, who is meeting with stakeholders to consider policy changes governing street parking and special food truck assemblies. “But I also see there’s some potential for synergy between brick and mortar restaurants and a food truck.”
Murcia said he’s made diplomatic overtures to various Gaslamp restaurants, suggesting they do some cross-promotion, especially since the trucks don’t sell alcohol, but he was rebuffed. While Murcia’s organized forays into downtown are perfectly legal, as are his weekend stops in the Gaslamp, he was concerned early on that surrounding businesses might try to dismantle the weekly events, so he launched a petition drive that he says has drawn some 700 signatures of support.
On a recent warm Thursday evening, the food truck meet-up of a half-dozen vendors got off to a slow start, but gradually, the street filled with couples out for an evening stroll, people just off work walking their dogs, and families grabbing a quick bite to eat. They grazed on quick-serve gourmet fare, from pesto fries and chicken parmigiana to lobster grilled cheese and house-made bratwurst with caramelized onions.
Marko Pavlinovic, owner of Mangia Mangia Mobile and a regular participant at the downtown gathering, said it makes perfect sense for small operators like himself to take advantage of high-traffic areas like the Gaslamp. The money isn’t huge, but the $300 to $400 he makes in a night there helps his bottom line, he says.
“One of the restaurant owners came to me taking pictures and he said, ‘I’m taking pictures because we want you out of here,’” Pavlinovic said. “So I talked to him. and said, ‘Let’s try to be realistic. We’re just a little food truck that makes a few hundred dollars in sales. I come down here once a week for a few hours, how can I possibly hurt your business?
“And then we started communicating nicely.”