Food Truck Urbanism Taking Root At 1401 Santa Monica Blvd.

Food Truck

Food Trucks At A Santa Monica Museum of Art Event At Bergamot Station

Back in January of 2010, food bloggers helped make the debut of a “food truck parking lot” at the vacant car dealership lot on 14th and Santa Monica a smashing success. Over 1,000 people showed up, and  many of the trucks actually ran out of food. However the event was illegal for the location under city zoning, and was quickly shut down on their 2nd day. This was back when the food truck scene reaching beyond the traditional market food trucks had always served before in Los Angeles was a new thing, and clearly the pent up demand for new food options exploded.

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The city of Santa Monica later worked out an arrangement for a conditional use permit at the California Heritage Museum parking lot on Main Street, where the now recurring Tuesday night food truck event has been attracting a regular following. The 14th & Santa Monica lot however has been empty and languishing ever since, apart from occasional seasonal pumpkin or Christmas tree sales. The lot has been wasted space for the entirety of my living in Santa Monica for the past 6 years.

This Wednesday marked the return of food trucks to the neglected piece of Santa Monica Blvd. real estate, now dubbed as the “Hump Day Lot”, under a new organizer. The response on day one was muted compared to the previous roll out in 2010 as reported in Patch. However promotion for the first day was light, and there is more competition in town now. Unfortunately, I heard about it the day after it occurred and I live a block away. The website for the new lot is posted on a sign at the site, but appears to be currently under construction as of this writing. Hopefully they work out the kinks in getting the word out.

The organizer is committing to this being a weekly thing, with conditional use permit secured, and is hoping for a zoning fix or permitting to eventually make it a permanent location. The schedule is 10am-3pm and dinner 4-9pm each Wednesday. Which is now also perfectly situated for bicycling customers with luxuriously wide bike lanes (by typical US standards anyways) on 14th Street.

Perierra Creperie Food Cart, Portland Oregon

My favorite food cart in Portland & the only place I have found vegan crepes. Note the flat tires.

In what were underutilized car lots all over Portland, Oregon are full time lots of food carts and trucks, often referred to by locals as “pods.” The stability and frequency of customers at the full time lots is such that some eateries designed out of trailers have been unhitched. Their owners have not bothered to keep air in their tires. This is in sharp contrast with the constant roaming before every meal searching for a viable space that typifies most Los Angeles area food trucks.

I’ve been excited by  ”food truck urbanism” for some time: the almost instant effect it can have on lifeless corners of a city and how a place becomes animated just by the food trucks coming in and inserting their own local economic relationships. I always felt the original spot was one of the most ideal locations for the concept. Anyone hoping for a resurgence in the auto industry to fill up all the vacant lots and empty dealership space on Santa Monica Blvd, and a come back of tax revenue from car sales, will be sorely disappointed. It’s time to get creative with our land use.

1401 Santa Monica Blvd.

1401 Santa Monica Blvd. in it's typical condition

One of the criticisms of the food trucks is the claim that it drives business away from brick and mortar establishments. However there are examples of food truck operators opening their own restaurants, and well established restaurants like Border Grill here in Santa Monica taking their food on the road for tapping into new markets and promoting their core business. Food trucks or carts, or other methods of mobile vending, are an incubation ground from which new ideas can be tested.

At CNU 20 I got a chance to chat with Tommy Pacello about food trucks. Pacello works for the mayor’s office in Memphis Tennessee as part of a grant funded project referred to as the Innovation Delivery Team. He recounted to me the story of one local food truck starting with a breakfast menu that had horrible coffee and mediocre food. It was nothing to write home about. But over time the coffee and food both got better, and business eventually became robust enough to justify securing a loan from a bank to open a full service restaurant.

Had the couple operating that truck tried going straight to opening a full restaurant, they may have been unable to get a loan at all. Even if they had, if they started with the mediocre menu they began with, their business may have flopped. With a higher cost overhead it would have made repayment on the loan a real struggle compared to opening with an already refined menu and business plan.

With anything in life, there can be too much. With mobile food vending, there is a need to regulate for the sake of maintaining a fair playing field. However I find it preposterous the extent to which we try to regulate out or throw up numerous hoops to jump through for creative uses of underutilized private land. Especially at a time of persisting high levels of unemployment. I hope the coming zoning update will relax the grip we have over mobile vending and adaptive reuse of underutilized properties in Santa Monica.

Also, can someone in the Los Angeles region please make a full featured taco grill bike (or point me to someone doing it if it here already). We can’t let Portland have better taco grill bike vending than us, and yes I am suggesting this is an arms race.

Taco Pedaler, Portland Oregon