ENCINITAS — Even though it was picking up speed, the city’s first regular food truck gathering was recently forced to come to a halt.
The organizers behind “Food Truck Fridays” say there won’t be any events in the near future, and possibly ever again due to an unforeseen permit demand from the city. While it may end for good, some food trucks are contemplating moving to a nearby public spot, which could prompt the city to review its food truck policy.
The Black Sheep, a yarn shop located off of Coast Highway 101, began hosting food trucks in its parking lot in early August. For more than a month-and-a-half, foodies flocked to the event every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m.
“We started the event on a whim and didn’t know how successful it would be,” said Tom Henderson, who owns The Black Sheep with his wife Karen.
But the last food truck gathering was Sept 21. Several days prior, the city asked The Black Sheep to discontinue the event. According to a ruling from the planning department, The Black Sheep, along with any other private-property owners considering playing host to weekly food truck gatherings, will now need to obtain a minor-use permit, otherwise the food trucks and The Black Sheep risk receiving fines.
Henderson argued the city didn’t initially communicate the possibility of needing a minor-use permit.
In July Henderson floated the idea of a food truck event to the city. He was told the food trucks must acquire an Encinitas business license, as well as meet health and vehicle codes — no other requirements were voiced, Henderson said.
“The city never even alluded to a minor-use permit,” Henderson said. “It came out of the blue.”
A minor-use permit is required because the events were larger than expected and held weekly, not a one or two-time event, according to the city.
In response, Henderson said he wasn’t made aware that regular versus one-off events “could even be an issue.”
The food trucks operated on their property once a week in exchange for The Black Sheep getting a percentage of the sales.
Some suggested the event was fast becoming one of the most popular food truck events in San Diego County, Henderson said. Statistics aren’t kept for a city-by-city comparison. But in addition to anecdotal evidence, some of Henderson’s own numbers indicated a mushrooming event: On average, food sales increased 25 percent at each event, though growth slowed during the last two weeks. Also, Food Truck Fridays started with four food trucks and grew to seven.
Although the event was profitable, Henderson said he isn’t sure whether he’ll pursue a minor-use permit. The process can take six months and the permit costs $1,600, including additional expenses for traffic studies, public hearings and other studies. The permit can be denied at any point in the process and the fees are nonrefundable, Henderson said.
“The food truck event was an experiment,” Henderson said. “There was some controversy, but overall it seemed to be well received. I don’t think people want it to go. We’re weighing our options.”
According to Kerry Kusiak, senior planner with the city, Encinitas’ municipal code does not specifically govern food trucks. The city based its decision on a section of code that states minor-use permits are necessary when items are sold outdoors on private property as part of regularly scheduled events.
“The food trucks were uncharted territory for us,” Kusiak said. “In addition to the code, we determined they would need a minor-use permit after gauging the impacts on traffic, parking and other considerations.”
Currently, the city’s code does not require special permits or prohibit food trucks operating on public streets, as long as they follow the California Vehicle Code, according to Kusiak.
Christian Murcia, owner of Crepes Bonaparte, one of the food trucks that participated in the event, said the city’s ruling will push food trucks to set up shop on public property, which may further anger brick-and-mortar-restaurants that weren’t happy about Food Truck Fridays.
At the end of August, more than 20 restaurants signed a letter addressed to the Downtown Encinitas Merchants Association expressing concern over the gatherings.
“The city should waive the minor-use permit on public property,” Murcia said. “I think restaurants would much prefer us contained and parked on private property, rather than just being on the street right in front of their businesses.”
Murcia estimates that the end of Food Truck Fridays will eat away at 10 percent of Crepes Bonaparte’s bottom line. But maybe not for long, he said. As something of a protest, Murcia and other food truck owners are planning on operating once a week for several hours at public parking spaces just east of The Black Sheep, he said.
Encinitas hasn’t passed any ordinances barring or curtailing food trucks selling food on public property. As such, the food trucks would only be subject to same code and parking requirements as other vehicles.
Some cities have tried to ban or limit food trucks on public and private property with ordinances, only to be overruled by sections of the California Vehicle Code and a state law from 1984 forbidding cities from outlawing mobile food vendors.
Last month, in Monrovia, Calif. an ordinance restricting where food trucks can operate was overturned. The city had to settle with the SoCal Mobile Vendors Association and pay $215,000 in attorney’s fees.
Should it take the necessary steps, The Black Sheep could potentially appeal the city’s code at a planning commission meeting, Kusiak said. If they don’t like that decision, they could make their case at a City Council meeting.