FOOD FIGHT: Are food trucks facing a fight in Santa Rosa?

Things may be getting even more sticky between the Sonoma County food truck brigade and brick and mortars in downtown Santa Rosa. As more and more truck stops crop up — first Munch Mondays, then Tasty Tuesdays in Rohnert Park and now discussion of a possible Friday night fleet in Railroad Square, the war of words is reaching a din. On Tuesday, the downtown restaurant association will meet to discuss concerns in what’s expected to be a rousing debate with city officials in attendance.

Surprising? Hardly. Restaurants around the country are struggling to adjust to the onslaught of mobile vendors – a phenom taking diners by storm. In an economy that’s already beaten the hospitality industry to a pulp, this could be a final nail for some. They say it just isn’t fair that someone with substantially lower operating costs can pull up near their establishments and siphon off customers.

Conversely, truck owners pay $60,000 and up for their rigs and are required to comply with all local health and permitting codes – all of which have costs. Many truck operators are themselves brick and mortar owners looking for new ways to reach eaters. Some are chefs who have lost multiple restaurant jobs in this tough economy and are simply trying to become entrepreneurs. A few tentative studies have shown that vibrant food truck scenes can actually stimulate local economies. But let’s be honest, the truth is that trucks are the media darlings of the moment and do have an upper hand when it comes to operating costs.

Meanwhile, city officials are finding themselves in an uncomfortable middle ground. Some have longstanding laws about mobile vendors, some have no laws at all, and are scrambling to determine what to do. In the absence of laws, some are banning the trucks altogether. When it comes to the potential economic draw, however, some forward-thinking cities like Santa Rosa are trying to split the difference, creating multi-pronged marketing efforts that help both mobile and sit-down eateries.

Here’s the thing: From a diner’s perspective, it all seems like a bit of a tempest in a teapot. All we want is great food at a great price. Diners want something new and interesting. Food trucks are courting bored eaters — many of whom are spending more time eating at home in this economy — to come out and eat again. Using social networking, clever marketing and playing off current trends, it’s working. Is that the fault of entrepreneurs? Or is it unfair to conventional restaurants? Can we ever find a place where we can all just get along?

There are clearly many sides to the story, and BiteClub wants to know what you think!

Do you think successful brick and mortar restaurants have anything to worry about? Has truck food already jumped the shark? Are the ones crying foul the loudest marginal eateries who have more to worry about than food trucks?

Sound off!


Author: biteclub

Food Dining and Restaurants in Sonoma County and beyond, BiteClubEats.com is Wine Country dining with Drive-Thru Sensibility.

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40 Comments

  1. Wow To all the people that eat food, and stumble upon this I am sorry you have seen behind the seens of being a business owner. I am a vender in down town as well as munch mondays. I hope we can all work together soon. If you come to munch monday and show me a receipt that you ate down town in the last week I will give you .50 of your meal http://www.chicagostylehotdog.com

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    • Good of you to that. Jeff! You are local and I support the local businesses as they in turn support other local business. The city should think about the priority whether to take care of the local first or the hit-and-run type of businesses.

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  2. I wondered what the local biz owners would think of the Mobile Monday and know we know…

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  3. Santa Rosa is a large city and can definitely support both brick & motor and mobile food carts. Competition is good for business and can bring out the best in what they have to offer. The city makes it very difficult for small restaurant establishments to open there own space (city water and sewage hookups can cost up to $30K). This way the city still generates taxes from food carts and regulates them.

    Being that Santa Rosa is in beautiful Wine Country with an unlimited bounty of fresh ingredients you would think we would be more open to more open market institutions and demand better from our local downtown restaurants. We have a lot to learn from towns like Healdsburg and Sonoma. Not too say we do not have our fair share of great establishments but Santa Rosa is very “chain” friendly.

    I would say to all those skeptics to embrace the change because it is happening whether you support it or not. And enjoy some FABULOUS food along the way.

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  4. I LOVE the idea of the food trucks – great, inovative food without the added-on 20% extortion fee otherwise known as “tipping”. Sorry, waitpersons! And my brother is one… but if your employer cannot pay you a proper wage that’s not my problem. In this economy, I’ll stay at home before I’ll succumb to it any longer. But now… those wonderful food trucks!

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  5. MOBILE the mobile food trucks are suppose to be moving every half hour according to the health dept. what gives these trucks special rights???

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    • @hum – the city of Santa Rosa what else! And they get to use the spot for free! Unlike the farmer’s market at the Veteran Memorial building lot there is a fee to park there.

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  6. I think the brick and mortars are missing the big picture here, and if they keep doing so, they will go under, and please don’t blame the food trucks if that happens. Food trucks are symptom of a larger problem, not a disease. Blaming a few food trucks, one day a week, for a single meal time (for the less expensive lunch crowd) is a cop out for your other issues. If potentially losing revenue that single time period once week is going to drive their business under, then there is a problem with their business model.

    Businesses in other industries have to be nimble and adapt to an ever-changing business environment to succeed. Why should brick & mortars be any different?

    Obviously, there is demand and excitement surrounding the food trucks. Brick and mortars can want to keep things the way they always have been all they want and complain, fight, etc to do so. Bottom line is that consumers choose where to spend their dollars and they drive the business. It is about the consumer. If they are speaking with their $$ and saying they want an alternative, then adapt.

    If you read the posts here, there are those with no interest in the food trucks. They will continue to patronize the brick & mortars. Things aren’t black and white, and there isn’t only one way to do things. It is sad that some brick & mortars can’t view this as an opportunity to bring much needed life to downtown, and possibly bring food truck patrons back at other meal times to patronize the brick & mortars.

    Personally, I have been looking forward to Mondays. I don’t have the hour+ to spend at a brick & mortar, and would not be downtown otherwise. I do, however, go down there sometimes for dinner. I can say though, the loud complainers will not be getting my dollars. Thoughtful discourse to try to work together so both sides win is one thing. Digging in your heels, whining and not trying to see changes are inevitable, is another.

    Wake up, brick & mortars. I don’t want you to fail. If it is not food trucks, it will be something else causing you issues. If you can’t survive a potential dip in revenue from one lunch period, one day a week then innovate and revise your business model. Successful businesses in other industries need to do it stay alive and thrive. So do you.

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  7. I attended a Munchy Monday (or whatever it was called) last month. I think they’re a good idea, but they clearly did not have the bugs worked out (maybe a bad choice of words). The lines were pretty awful (bad); there was a lot of variety to choose from (good); the food was not cheap eats (bad); there was no place to sit and eat (bad) so it was either stand and eat or take it back to the office. Luckily the office was down the block, but the food was cold when I got there (bad). So far, not high praise from me, but I may try it again. :)

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    • Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t get the not sitting down thing people keep talking about. That’s kind of the whole point. You either take it away or you eat standing up. Having lived in New York, you kind of get used to eating on the street or sitting on the curb. That’s what you do at the fair, or anywhere you eat off a truck. That’s part of the fun, people.

      I loved the guy a week ago who set up a table on the back of his car. Brilliant.

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      • Yes… your weird, AND a redhead,..double trouble

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      • The fact that he set up a table in the back of his truck should tell you something.

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  8. The food trucks are the best thing to happen to those who work a 9-5. I’d like to be able to eat at restaurants for lunch, but they don’t make it convenient. First you have to get there (drive or walk), if you drive you have to find (and if downtown PAY) for parking. Than you need to wait for a table, wait for your server, wait for your food, wait for your bill, wait for your change/charge slip, then get back to the office. Unless your going to a fast food restaurant, whose quality is likely less than that of the food trucks, this is at least 1-1/2 to 2 hours of your day. Not a lot of folks have the flexibility to spend that much time away from work.

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  9. My take on this? The restaurants need to stop whining and realize it’s a buyers market. If they want to compete then they need to try to get the customers in. Food trucks should be allowed to ply their wares wherever it’s legal.

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    • Whining? What would you do if you are an owner of a restaurant in Downtown SR? These are “hit and run” type of businesses and the city are promoting them instead of the real local businesses. Restaurants have staffs or waiters, bus persons, cooks, dishwashers, etc and the perveyors like Andy’s produce, Imwalle’s and SR meat and poultry to name a few. And they paid local taxes.

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      • Ummm, Cyclist, perhaps you should do a double check…first, they are “real” businesses. Second, the city is not promoting anything, the city is providing a limited space (for 3 hours) for these trucks to come and park once a week…Monday of all days. I love how the restaurants that aren’t doing well, suddenly declare that its everyone elses fault. Wake up, start engaging the community…I would to see how your patrons will react if you decide to make the choices on where they should eat for them. What would I do? I would get involved! embrace it and see how I can be a part of it to grow my business. After all, that’s what “real” businesses do…stop whining!

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        • If they play by the rules like other food trucks and stayed at one spot for 30 minutes but the city is catering and promoting it. Yep the city council is business “friendly” but take care of your own first!

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      • Actually, WE pay local taxes too! And we use Andy’s Produce, Imwalles, Santa Rosa Meat & Poultry, Cash & Carry & Willie Birds for vendors! The difference is that WE use them more often! Our cook would NEVER buy a piece of meat and freeze it. Even ground chuck has to be fresh! We buy smaller amounts of it at a time so that he doesn’t have to freeze it. I make cole slaw daily! At the end of the day, if there is any left over (almost never :) ) then it’s brought into the house and eaten or thrown out! Real restaurants & fast food places, buy frozen meat and keep to so called “holding times”. Your lettuce can be three days old! One place that I used to work, pours new syrup into the old. They’ve been doing that for at least 14 years! I went to work for a place with a salad bar once, stirred the cheese and found an inch of moldy cheese under the new cheese! GROSS! The owners are both places are too cheap to replace the old on a regular basis! We don’t order any food products from out of the area places! We DO help the local economy! You will never see a Sysco truck pulled up in front of our trucks delivering supplies meant to last a week or more. You will see our trucks pulled up in front of local establishments buying for a day or two.

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  10. Brick and mortar restaurants pass more rigid health inspections and have bathrooms for their employees to use. Trucks are mobile germ factories.

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    • That’s a little harsh don’t you think? I am not a fan of food trucks but I do believe they have to adhere to the same health code. Of course they don’t have to deal with dirty dishes and rest rooms cleanliness.

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    • Gina, you have non idea what you are talking about. The food trucks have justbas rigid health requirements….someone should make a documentary on how totally uninformed people can be! I good buddy of mine owns a food truck and goes to Munch Mondays. I’d be happy to set up a time for yout to go check out their facility.

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      • Ah here we go. No wonder you are defending the food trucks.

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    • Actually Gina, we go through the same health inspections that brick & mortar restaurants go through. The difference? We have far fewer employees touching much less food! It’s much easier for us to clean our little diner! The cook wears gloves at all times and changes them regularly. I almost never touch the food, and when I do, I put on a pair of gloves (ever see a server wearing gloves when touching your plate?) to avoid contamination from the money. Clean up is done at a licensed commissary. We use the same cleaners and disinfectants that a restaurant uses. I used to be a server! I know what it takes to keep my little diner clean. *laughs* I remember the day that we dropped the diner off for it’s first inspection, making sure that all the “t’s” were crossed, the “i’s” dotted… there were still four very nervous owners waiting for that one little piece of paper. To say “Trucks are mobile germ factories” is such a misconception that it’s almost laughable…. I think that most of us are cleaner than the brick & mortar establishments. I’d have lunch at a mobile vendor before I would at a conventional place.

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  11. For quite a while now, people have been avoiding “unnecessary” expenses. Eating out has fallen under that category. Food trucks are bridging the gap, breaking people out of their old thinking and reminding them that eating out is fun and affordable.
    Attention is back on downtown Santa Rosa and, if used correctly, can be a beneficial boost to the other eating establishments there year round. Get creative! Use the publicity to your advantage instead of fighting against it.

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  12. We started our food truck because we are an older couple who got tired of being treated like third rate citizens by the 20 year old wait staff. Also, there is the factor that we don’t speak spanish and have a hard time understanding the order takers, especially at fast food establishments. We were also tired of paying an outrageous price for the low quality meals that the restaurants seem to be comfortable with charging. We were downtown one day and had street food and it was great! It was then that we decided we wanted to be a part of what they are doing. Providing a good meal… at a good price… and offer REAL smiles, not those fake ones by kids who’d rather not be there. I’ve met so many people who think the same way we do, that I can’t count them. People want to be treated as “people”! Not just another dollar! So the restaurants might want to take a look at the customer service that we provide and perhaps, if they are smart, they will follow our lead. Keep it simple, fun and affordable.

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    • Sharon – I can sympathize with that and mostly true. Unfortunately most restaurants are catering to the younger crowds typically if you walk up and down 4th street.

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      • Cyclist, obviously, you are a restaurant owner and have a problem with some good old fashioned competition. If this was set up on someone private lot you’d simply be complaining about something else and why it shouldn’t be done…focus on building your business…not trying to kill others. I really like, Im a patron of so many restaurants its ridiculous…you miss the point if you think by limiting options for people like me by trying to get rif of the restaurants will help yours…nuff said.

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        • Tennenbaum – You are wrong I am not a restaurant owner nor own any business in Santa Rosa. The city is catering to the hit and run type of business that will do nothing to improve the downtown area other than creating more garbage as they use paper and plastic wares.

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  13. Whatever happend to free will ? The Brick and Mortars need to take this opportunity to step up and prove that they are worthy. The mobile eateries are subjected to all of the same standards as the Brick and mortars and in many ways are scrutinized more by health agencies. If the Brick and Mortars are providing a quality meal in a friendly inviting atmosphere they shouldn’t worry. If they are in fact resting on their laurels expecting their customers to be loyal even though they are providing an inferior dining experience then they need this wake up call anyway. Suck it up and step it up !

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  14. If the food trucks were downtown 5,6,7 days a week, the brick-and-mortar folks might have a valid complaint. To whine about having a little competition one day a week only goes to show their sense of entitlement and their lack of willingness to even make an effort to provide the consumer with something new, different and reasonably priced. How many restaurants are downtown anyway? If I ate lunch somewhere different once a week, in not too long a time I’d complete the circuit and be back looking for something different again…and if it happened to be a rueben with fries or eggs benedict, I wouldn’t go to Munch Monday, I’d be in one of the restaurants. But if it was a kick-a$$ chili-dog that tempted my taste buds, I’d be hanging out down by the post office waiting at 11:30 on Monday. If the merchants are concerned about competition, let them figure out how to complete. My only concern is the current site. The parking lot is pretty bleak and may get uncomfortable with higher summer temps. The logical spot seems to be the depot parking lot in Old Railroad Square. That area wants to be trendy and different, there is shade, grass and a few benches. Having it there would make it seem like the City was actually behind something pleasant for the citizenry, and maybe even something for the tourists that might be staying across the street or just down the block. There are probably not a lot of food trucks in Iowa or North Dakota, so it would be one more cool thing about the wine country they could tell their friends about back home.

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  15. having more choices is always a good thing for the consumer…and it’s about the consumer, not the business owner…

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    • No consumer then no business and vice versa. :-) I think they should move the whole get up in front of city hall. The 24 minutes parking meters are hardly ever use anyway.

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  16. H-
    The downtown restaurants don’t seem to make the marketing effort Munch Monday has – my 2 cents. Also – I hate to stand and eat but love awesome/inexpensive/interesting food! Seems like there could be a SR City park (free parking and grass to sit on/park bench). Park would be nice in the summer months rather than the burning hot asphalt. Just a thought…

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  17. It is a tempest in a teapot. Why? Because it’s not going to last.

    A. I hate to stand up and eat. Try balancing a plate of dim sum a hamburger, chop sticks, and a bottle of water. It’s frustrating.

    B. Eating like this is messy and there isn’t anyplace to wash your hands. You end up using 50,000 napkins which do not work.

    C. The parking lot in front of the Post Office is butt-ugly and, again, there isn’t any place to sit save for a concrete curb. It needs to be moved closer to a park with seating, facilities, and trees. Imagine that parking lot in July.

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    • D. There are no covers and a bird might drop something on you. :-)

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  18. “Studies have shown that — at least to a certain point — vibrant food truck scenes can actually stimulate local economies.”

    What studies are you referring to? Not that I don’t believe you but… this has been studied? And by whom? Citation please.

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