The city of Watsonville is cracking down on unpermitted food trucks and weighing whether to rework its rules regarding the mobile food vendors in the coming year.
The city manager’s office has received numerous complaints about food trucks from several brick-and-mortar restaurant owners over the last month, according to Community Development Department Director Suzi Merriam.
“What the big complaint is, is that these are competing with the brick-and-mortar restaurants in town,” she says. “[They say that] it’s not fair that food trucks are not paying rent, they’re not paying property taxes, that they’re not contributing to the local economy.”
And some, Merriam says, do not hold the necessary permits and licenses needed to operate within city limits.
Mobile food vendors require a permit from the police department and a business license from the city of Watsonville. They also need to pass an inspection from the county’s environmental health and fire departments.
Over the course of three recent weekends, code enforcement officers found at least seven food trucks operating within Watsonville city without one or more of the needed permits, Merriam says.
Code enforcement officers did not hand out any citations during their first sweeps, Merriam says. Instead, they gave those trucks a warning, and explained the application process.
Merriam says only two had obtained the necessary permits and another two had picked up the application packet from the city. Most, she says, have been understanding of the requirements.
“If they do not have all of these approvals, they need to leave Watsonville until they obtain them,” Merriam says.
But even if those trucks in question obtain the proper permits, Merriam says the issue might not go away anytime soon.
“It’s very cyclical,” she says. “It’s definitely something that keeps coming back around.”
SETTING THE TABLE
Concerns about food trucks undercutting brick-and-mortar locations are not novel issues in Watsonville or in other cities
Just as in Watsonville, food truck operators in the city of Santa Cruz must seek permission from the Santa Cruz Police Department and apply for a business license before getting clearance from the county health department and the fire department to open up. Vendors also must follow certain rules.
For instance, they can’t stop for more than four hours per stop. In residential zones, they can’t stop for more than 15 minutes. Additionally, there are 17 streets that vendors must stay away from, including West Cliff Drive, Pacific Avenue and Harvey West Boulevard.
But rules alone haven’t prevented a sense of frustration. A June executive order from City Manager Martín Bernal further restricted where vendors could set up, due to social distancing protocols in line with the Covid-19 pandemic. Some activists responded in outrage, calling the rules classist, but Santa Cruz stood its ground. After that, tensions ran high in August, when a Santa Cruz restaurant owner flipped an unpermitted food cart and allegedly pushed the cart owner to the ground. Although many came to the defense of the cart owner, she did not have the necessary permits to continue selling hot dogs in Santa Cruz.
In the city of Watsonville, leaders tried to leverage the burgeoning industry in 2012 by starting a weekly food truck gathering downtown. But business owners expressed concern that they would eat into their already thin profits, increase litter and create a negative image for the city.
Watsonville City Council last updated its rules around mobile food vendors in 2008, establishing when and where and vendors could set up and what permits they needed.
In 2015, the council tried to update those regulations, but those efforts were cooked before they began. Dozens of food vendors, worried that their livelihood would be chopped, showed up to the council chambers to push back on a rumored food truck ban. Instead, the council directed city staff to educate the vendors about the needed permits and to help streamline the permitting process.
It was then that the city also found a loophole in the wording of its traveling merchant rules. According to the municipal code, mobile food vendors can only operate in residential areas and they can only stay in one location for no more than five minutes. But an exemption in the rules for soliciting at businesses undermines those restrictions.
That rule reads: “It shall be unlawful to solicit directly to patrons at a fixed place of business without the authorization of the business owner/operator.”
“So that kind of throws everything else out the window,” Merriam says. “This one sentence essentially allows them—as long as the property owner or business owner, in writing, allows them to be there—to just sit there all day.”
City Manager Matt Huffaker says in an email that it is too soon to say when possible changes could come before the City Council. He does, however, say Watsonville will soon begin reviewing what other cities have done to police food trucks. Some have capped the time food trucks can stay in one location. Others have restricted them from setting up in locations with a high number of brick-and-mortar locations.
“Those are possibilities,” he says.
LEVELING THE FIELD
The pandemic has thrown restaurants into flux, as indoor and outdoor dining has opened and closed numerous times over the past nine months. But food truck operations, at least in Watsonville, have mostly remained the same; some have seen a boost in sales.
Food trucks that had deals with breweries and wineries likely saw sales drop, as those locations are currently forced to only offer carryout during the stay-at-home order. But many that serve in city limits operate similar to brick-and-mortar restaurants, setting up daily in parking lots of vacant businesses or busy gas stations.
That creates an unfair advantage over traditional restaurants, says Fernando Munoz, the owner of the Taqueria Mi Tierra restaurants on Freedom Boulevard. While most food truck owners do pay rent to a property manager to set up shop and hold their vehicle overnight, they do not have to deal with similar overhead fees that brick-and-mortars do. Property taxes, garbage, water, electricity, gas, recycling and impact fees for additions and improvements, it all adds up, Munoz says.
“Just my garbage fees are $6,000, but that’s OK because it goes right back to the city—it goes right back to the community,” he says. “Brick-and-mortars are the basis of the city and a community. We support schools, hospitals, police and fire.”
Munoz says several trucks are operating in violation of county health regulations by bringing in food that was prepared at home and not in an industrial prep station or in the truck. Many mobile vendors, he says, also lack access to running water and don’t have a nearby restroom—in violation of the California health code.
Munoz says he’s reported possible health violations to the county, but they’ve yet to take action. That failure in enforcement, he says, is understandable because of the department’s slim budget, which has only been trimmed further since the start of the pandemic. Merriam says Watsonville doesn’t have a lot of resources, either. Code enforcement for mobile food vendors isn’t a high priority and is mostly complaint-driven because of staffing.
Munoz suggests the city charge food trucks a fee that would equate to a small brick-and-mortar restaurant’s annual overhead—$10,000-20,000—and use a portion of those funds to hire an employee to enforce the traveling merchant ordinance.
TRUCKING THE TREND
On average, it costs about $375,000 to open up a restaurant, according to a survey from the website Restaurant Owner. For many in Watsonville, a city with a household median income of $55,000, that price tag means opening a brick-and-mortar location would require taking out a large business loan and diving into a pool of debt.
Food trucks offer a cheaper path to entrepreneurship and to sharing one’s love for food, say Miches and Ceviches owners Perla Pineda and Sergio Ferreira. The couple started cooking Mexican seafood at home for their family and close friends and eventually branched out to sell their wares over social media—a trend that has exploded since the pandemic began.
The weekend side gig turned into a full-time job when Pineda got laid off from her job with a local nonprofit in March. That “blessing in disguise,” she says, pushed the couple to buy a full-service trailer—complete with an industrial prep station, cold storage, wash stations and bathroom—and give Miches and Ceviches her full attention.
The Miches and Ceviches trailer is parked on the 1400 block of Freedom Boulevard behind Hong Kong Express, adjacent to two other brick-and-mortar restaurants. Pineda and Ferreira say they haven’t received direct complaints from their neighbors, but that they have heard from customers that restaurants have been trying to shut them down.
Pineda says she has followed her mother’s words of wisdom: “There’s always sun for everybody.”
“Whenever anybody tries to come and throw negative jabs like that, I always say, ‘There’s room for everybody,’” she says.
During the recent code enforcement sweep, Pineda’s trailer met all city and county requirements. She says the code enforcement officer told her she was one of few food truck owners who could say that, which didn’t surprise her after her experience with government bureaucracy.
The trouble, she says, is there’s no clear and quick way to obtain the necessary permits and inspections from the county. After purchasing their trailer in March, the couple spent 10 months jumping through hoops put forth by the health department. Pineda attributes some of the delays to the pandemic, but most, she says, were a result of unclear instructions.
Ultimately, she says that having all of the necessary permits, insurances and licenses has taken a big weight off their shoulders.
“If we’re going to do things, we’re going to do them right,” Pineda says, “and I think all [food trucks] want to.”