Half Moon Bay, CA: City Hits Brakes on Food Trucks

Sam's Chowdermobile

By Mark Noack | HMBReview.com

Councilman Rick Kowalczyk wondered aloud whether the new rules would be overkill for ice cream vendors or sidewalk produce sellers.

So far, there aren’t a lot of food wagons coming to the coast, but Half Moon Bay leaders plan to ask them to yield for city permits designed to protect existing restaurants.

Following the example of many other cities, Half Moon Bay council members began drafting rules last week to regulate all manner of restaurants-on-wheels, everything from an ice-cream pushcart to the Sam’s Chowdermobile.

Sam's Chowdermobile

Before selling burritos, falafels or anything edible, a mobile food vendor would need the right permits in hand. Along with paying the standard business license fee, a food truck would also need a new $65 “mobile vending” permit. Any restaurant wagon would then also take special health classes and have a criminal background check to make sure the driver doesn’t have past drug, theft or sex convictions.

Vendors who follow those steps can set up shop – but only in certain spots and for no more than 15 minutes.

“The owner would have to specify where they’ll set up shop,” explained City Attorney Tony Condotti. “If it’s right in the middle of downtown, that’d probably not be appropriate.”

In many larger cities, mobile food trucks have become a bee in the bonnet of brick-and-mortar restaurant owners. Once dismissed as “roach coaches,” mobile wagons have become a formidable force in the food business. They are now known to serve gourmet fare at peak-traffic locations and then zip away to the next hotspot.

Restaurant owners in urban areas have complained that this mobile competition has unfair advantages. For example, mobile vendors don’t have to provide customers with restrooms or seating, much less pay the rent and property taxes of a fixed location.

City Councilwoman Marina Fraser endorsed the new rules as a way to reinforce local eateries.

“I want to see people coming to our restaurants to eat,” she emphasized.

So far, food trucks have not become part of the Coastside culture, even on high-traffic sunny days. City Councilman Rick Kowalczyk wondered aloud whether the new rules would be overkill for ice cream vendors or sidewalk produce sellers.

“It could be a (business) enhancer or detractor,” he said.

Even though Half Moon Bay doesn’t get many food trucks, the new rules were probably a prudent precaution, said Paul Shenkman, owner of Sam’s Chowderhouse and its Chowdermobile.

“There are plenty of fly-by-night operations that haven’t gotten health permits or licenses,” he said. “But I can’t imagine there would be enough traffic (in Half Moon Bay), except perhaps for a small vendor.”

Similar food-wagon rules set up by San Mateo County had nipped one Half Moon Bay resident’s idea to run a hot-dog cart at Surfer’s Beach. Mel Schwing Jr. said the county’s permits and rules meant he would lose money on a food cart.

“I’m not going to put out money and then have someone say it’s illegal for me to be in a particular area,” he said, speaking in June. “It was just too expensive to justify.”

Half Moon Bay council members asked staff to rewrite certain sections of the proposed ordinance and draft an information packet to help mobile food vendors to follow the proposed rules.