Torrance, CA: Food Truck Raid Outrages Fundraisers

Torrance police talk to a person at the recent gourmet food truck fundraiser.

By Nick Green |

Torrance police talk to a person at the recent gourmet food truck fundraiser.

One moment, 13 invited food trucks were serving hundreds of diners on a Torrance elementary school campus at an educational fundraiser.

The next moment, the long-planned event had come to a screeching halt, as police raided the gathering and issued citations to trucks without business licenses, prompting some to hurriedly head for the exits.

“It looked like some sort of weird druglord movie where the cops were coming and everyone is running for the hills,” said William Mackey, a director with the Yukon Elementary Academic Alliance, a nonprofit group affiliated with the north Torrance school of the same name.

“Trucks were packing up as fast as they could,” he added. “People were moving tables to avoid getting hit by the (fleeing) trucks.”

And when the gathering was over, six food trucks had been cited, angry parents had verbally assailed the responding officers, the school fundraiser was a total bust and the supposedly business-friendly city of Torrance was left with a major public relations problem on its hands.

“I was really ticked off (last) Friday, as were both the parents and staff from Yukon,” said Mike Beasley, president of the alliance. “We thought we had the assurances from the city that as long as the event was held on school grounds we wouldn’t have any issues. And we made those assurances to the food truck people.

“We looked pretty bad,” Beasley added. “We felt like we set them up. We’ve pretty much damaged the reputation of Yukon and I’m not sure we can ever get that group (of food trucks) back.”

Mayor Frank Scotto denied that city officials had planned in advance to bust food trucks serving food without a license.

“That was not supposed to have happened,” he said. “There was no intent to do that.

“We’ve got better things to do than set up catering trucks to get busted,” Scotto added. “We don’t need the bad PR. They just need to follow the rules and there would be no issues with this.”

Organizers, however, aren’t convinced city officials are being completely forthright.

Beasley noted that, in particular, one officer involved in the raid seemed evasive.

“He did say his boss specially told him to come check us out,” Beasley said. “When I asked him who his boss was, all he said was Scotto would know who his boss was. He didn’t give me a lot of straight answers.”

Straight answers can be difficult to come by in the ever-evolving industry of gourmet food trucks – and the patchwork of regulations that affect them.

The trucks have thousands of devoted fans, many of whom follow their constantly changing locations via Twitter.

But authorities, as Scotto acknowledges, have had mixed success in regulating them.

Food trucks have been punted out of a variety of locations in such cities as Carson and Torrance as well as places such as Alpine Village, which is in unincorporated Los Angeles County. Earlier this year, organizers of the Torrance Block Party in Old Torrance had hoped to include food trucks at the event, but encountered resistance from city officials.

Officials were at first concerned food trucks could sap the business of existing restaurants.

Figuring out `what’s fair’

Instead, it seems food truck fans wouldn’t go out to eat anyway, period, Scotto said.

“This is a new phenomenon,” he said. “Somehow we have to figure out what’s fair. How much do we charge for a (business) license for a mobile catering truck to make it fair to the existing restaurants who are paying their fair share?”

Possible solutions could include a new classification of business licenses for food trucks or requiring organizers of such school benefits to get a license for the entire event.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, stung by the outcry from angry parents in the wake of the busted fundraiser, Scotto directed city staff to explore how to deal with the issue and to bring back suggestions to the panel in about three weeks.

There is a sense of urgency in coming up with an answer quickly.

Schools, for instance, are relying more on such food- truck fundraisers.

On Nov. 18, other schools in Torrance were holding similar fundraisers at the same time as Yukon was, said Don Lee, president of the Torrance Unified School District Board of Trustees and a former city councilman.

“The community gives us a half a billion dollars between the two agencies and I think the community expects we can work together to everyone’s benefit,” he said. “How can we deal with this so the school organizations can continue to have these and not kill them with (excessive) fees, because they’re good fundraisers?”

Indeed, Beasley said the food trucks at the Yukon gathering were so pleased with the response that they had wanted to make the event a weekly one before the police raid.

“We had huge crowds,” he said. “The food trucks said it was one of the best they’d had.”

It’s no minor issue for schools like Yukon.

Educational cutbacks mean the sort of school fundraisers that once paid for “extras” like field trips or sports uniforms are now considered integral elements in helping maintain scholastic performance.

Raising teacher funds

The Yukon-affiliated nonprofit, for instance, is trying to raise $50,000 so it can retain four intervention teachers through the end of the school year. Intervention teachers not only help lower-performing students, but also can help reduce class sizes, which benefits all students.

The teachers are “pretty important,” Beasley said. And that’s making parents protective of such initiatives.

“As a PTA mom and small- business owner trying to get by in this recession, it makes me sad when Torrance police shut down an event that supports our community, public school and TUSD kids,” said Wendy Asato, a North High School graduate and Rancho Palos Verdes resident.

It’s unclear who was to blame for the miscommunication between city officials and organizers of the Yukon event.

Scotto said the problem was the absence of a $236 business license plus a $37 Police Department inspection fee.

But Mackey said his understanding in talking to city officials was that they simply didn’t want food trucks in the city period, and a business license wasn’t an issue one way or the other. That’s why he believed he simply needed city officials to sign off on the event.

Justin Mi, owner of The Lobsta Truck, who helped coordinate the Yukon gathering and was one of the trucks cited, said he had repeatedly called city officials this week in the wake of the event in an effort to resolve the issue.

Owner: Policies unclear

Mi said the Police Department seemed unclear about when inspections are called for. And he was unable to get a return call from the person in charge of issuing business licenses.

Mi said he has about 15 business licenses from various cities, including El Segundo and Manhattan Beach.

The city of Torrance opened a one-stop permit center earlier this year in an effort to expedite the processing of permits and licenses. It has been a finalist the past two years for an award bestowed on the most business-friendly large city in the county, but has yet to win.

“The city can’t even tell me how much the citation is,” Mi said. “I have no problem getting a business license. I just want to know which one, how much I have to pay and what I have to do. They won’t return my calls and they don’t know what they want.”