Sandra Wasson ate her lunch while shivering on a curb in a city parking lot Monday afternoon, but said it was one of the best meals she has ever had.
It started with a Chicago style hot dog slathered with hot sweet pickles.
Next came a steaming rice paper dumpling with special sesame oil.
That was followed by a slow-roasted pulled pork sandwich with Jamaican jerk sauce on a toasted roll with fresh cole slaw.
And finally, the piece de résistance: a warm crab sandwich made with a quarter pound of fresh local crab, wild arugula and strawberry daikons on a warm ciabatta roll, which she split with friend Susan Pinto.
“This is awesome,” Wasson said, her eyes rolling back in her head as she cradled her half of the sandwich.
Hundreds of people joined her, braving frigid temperatures to buy lunch from six mobile gourmet food vendors who set up shop in a Third Street parking lot just south of the library.
Driven largely by social media and word of mouth, the city sanctioned event dubbed Munch Mondays aims to give mobile vendors a place to congregate downtown, while also promoting traditional eateries on a traditionally slow lunch day.
“This is fun. This is what people want. The whole West Coast is doing it,” said Jeff Tyler, owner of Chicago Style Hot Dog and one of the event’s organizers.
Tyler got the idea after the city started letting him and others park after hours in Old Courthouse Square. Business has been brisk on Friday and Saturday nights, he said.
“Sometimes there are 150 people standing around my hot dog cart at two in the morning,” he said.
Tyler said he sees himself as part of a national “food truck movement” that is bringing more diverse cuisine to cities like San Francisco, Portland and Austin.
He and Jillian Dorman, owner of Street-eatz Mobile Kitchen, and Alma Mendez, owner of La Texanita, began talking to the city about creating a lunch venue.
After six months of planning, Dorman said response to the event was overwhelming.
“A lot of people said they have been waiting a long time for this,” she said.
But not everyone is pleased. Owners of some Fourth Street restaurants expressed concern about competition from the after-hours vendors.
Nino Rabbaa, owner of Rendez Vous Bistro on Fourth Street, said he doesn’t mind the competition but worries the city is giving cart and truck owners an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar businesses with higher cost structures, including taxes and permit fees.
The economy continues to be tough for restaurants, and opening the city’s downtown to other vendors, particularly ones based in other cities, makes no sense to him.
“They are gambling with our lives right now,” Rabbaa said.
Why should the city allow Roseland taqueria La Texanita, for example, to have a truck right on Old Courthouse Square when there are several long-time Mexican restaurants nearby?
“How would they feel if I opened up a cart in front of their restaurant?” Rabbaa asked.
Raissa de la Rosa, a City of Santa Rosa economic development specialist, said she and the event’s organizers have tried to explain the way carts can infuse life into a downtown food scene.
The goal is not to compete with established restaurants, she said, but to provide new options that generate a buzz and attract more people.
“The idea is to showcase the vitality of the downtown,” de la Rosa said.
The city’s economic development department is supporting the event on a trial basis by waiving the $75 special event permit fee and footing the $68 cost of occupying 17 parking spaces for four hours, de la Rosa said.
If the event continues beyond the first two months, some of those costs could be shifted to the vendors, she said.
City Councilman Jake Ours stopped by to check out the event and said he liked what he saw.
But instead of a parking lot near the post office, Ours said he would like to see it moved to a more high-profile spot like Old Courthouse Square.
The city has plans to one day reunify the square, he said, so why not block Santa Rosa Avenue and let vendors park there like they do during the Wednesday Night Market?
Said Ours, “As a city, you’ve got to get known for this type of thing.”