San Pedro, CA: Panel to Consider Making Food Trucks Permanent at ‘1st Thursdays’

Boccanfuso, owner of Neil's Pasta says "It's (food trucks) not a plus for the restaurants. It kills all the business."

By Donna Littlejohn |

Boccanfuso, owner of Neil's Pasta says "It's (food trucks) not a plus for the restaurants. It kills all the business."

The waffles sold out and the grilled cheese had a minimum 30-minute wait – for hours.

Last week’s experiment in coordinating visits by some of the region’s trendiest gourmet food trucks with the monthly First Thursday open house in downtown San Pedro was a smashing success, according to most assessments.

“Definitely, it was a happening,” said Allyson Vought, an artist who runs Studio 356 on Seventh Street. Vought headed up the effort to bring the trucks to First Thursday under the area’s new Arts, Culture and Entertainment District.

“It achieved the goal – it brought people to San Pedro,” she said.

Off the Vine, a wine shop on Sixth Street at Pacific Avenue, was packed with customers.

“I’ve heard nothing negative about it,” said Alison Shaw-Koth, who owns the shop with her husband. “It was awesome. It’s just what downtown needs.”

Not everyone was happy, though. At least one restaurant owner viewed the setup as bringing in outside competition.

“It’s a horrible thing,” said Neil Boccanfuso, owner of Neil’s Pasta and Seafood Grill at 383 W. Fifth St. “I’m so unhappy I decided to cancel my membership to the (San Pedro) Chamber of Commerce, and I’ve been with them 14 years.

Calling the idea an “insult” to local eateries, Boccanfuso said, “It’s not a plus for the restaurants. It kills all the business.”

Andrew Silber of the Whale and Ale Pub on Seventh Street, however, said his restaurant was busier
than usual.

“We were rocking in here,” Silber said. “The sidewalks were crammed with people and that’s kind of what First Thursday was always meant to be about.”

The trucks have created a phenomenon in the past year, drawing throngs of fans willing to stand in long lines for unusual food specialties.

They’ve been popular mostly in West Los Angeles and only recently have begun turning up in San Pedro.

By coordinating the trucks during the First Thursday Artwalk – a monthly festival that features art studio and gallery open houses, entertainment, shopping and dining – event leaders hope to create more effective marketing that will bring new visitors to the downtown shopping district.

In conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, the ACE District panel will assess the pilot event at its meeting next week and discuss how to proceed.

The trucks likely will be standing features for First Thursdays, “with a couple little bugs worked out of the system,” Vought said. ” … We liked it, and so far it’s been a positive buzz.”

An effort is made to invite trucks that offer foods unlike those served up in the area’s restaurants already – and to place trucks strategically so that direct competition or other problems are avoided with specific merchants.

One complication on the June 2 event: Nearly three times as many trucks as were invited showed up.

While four trucks were formally invited, 11 wound up coming into town, creating a bit of a scramble for locations. Some businesses personally invited trucks on their own; other trucks just showed up after the word spread.

When Shaw-Koth and her husband learned that the invited trucks would be centered a block away from their store – “That would have killed us,” she said of the potential for lost business – they contacted the Krazy Barbecue food truck and had it park in the space outside their shop. Then they invited customers to bring their food from the truck inside and buy a glass of wine to enjoy with their meal.

“You couldn’t sit another person in this place, it got so busy,” she said, adding that she and her husband also spread the word far and wide in advance, making use of Yelp and other social network sites.

Before bringing the trucks back, Vought wants to work with more stakeholders in the area in the planning process.

Matt Geller, CEO of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, said the event appeared to be a success.

“We want to do it again next month,” he said. “What I was happy to hear was that there was an increase in people, but it wasn’t in any way unmanageable. Sometimes with food truck events you can expect 5,000 to 10,000 people to show up.”

In the future, he said, more effort will be made to designate specific trucks and rotate them.

San Pedro, Geller said, “is such a cool area. … It’s really conducive to a great community walking event, it’s almost like this little jewel that nobody knows about.”

As for local restaurants, he said, many of them benefit when visitors stop in for a glass of wine or dessert on top of visiting a food truck.

Most of all, there were crowds.

“When I looked out on the street, it looked like this was a real fun town on a fun night,” Silber said. “We don’t see that very often.”

“People go to places where there are people,” Shaw-Koth said. “The kids around here all like to go to Long Beach, they go where it’s crowded.”

The hope is that many of this month’s First Thursday visitors will be back.

“We’ve accomplished what we wanted to,” Vought said. “We brought people to downtown San Pedro.”