Paul Wellman (file)
The Burger Bus is headed to Colorado because, chef Michael Gardner said, City Hall made it impossible for him to earn a living here in Santa Barbara.
Flight of the Santa Barbara Food Trucks
Mobile Vendors Fold and Flee Before Pending Regulations
Thursday, June 29, 2017
A flagship food truck of Santa Barbara’s small but popular street-food scene packed up and headed for greener pastures this week, done in, the owner said, by a city government and brick-and-mortar lobby hostile to his brand of business.
Michael Gardner, a 16-year Santa Barbara resident and eight-year operator of the Burger Bus, is moving with his wife and young daughter to Colorado, where, he believes, food truck regulations are more reasonable and community leaders are willing to allow new flavor and fun in their downtown districts. “We will miss this place dearly,” he said. “But we’re not super excited about the direction Santa Barbara is heading. It’s just not friendly to small business — it wants cruise ships and everyone walking down State Street carrying a Bloomingdale’s bag.”
Gardner is only the most recent food-truck operator to close down after city officials introduced two sets of proposed regulations that would restrict how they can operate on public and private property. The reason for the new rules, officials said, came out of a concern for public safety and a desire to clarify obsolete city laws.
The public-property ordinance — still in draft form but scheduled for a public hearing later this summer — would ban mobile vendors from setting up on city streets along the downtown, Funk Zone, and Milpas corridors. Hours of operation would be restricted to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and only an hour of sales would be permitted at any location. The private-property rules — part of the city’s pending overhaul of its zoning laws — would permit food trucks in commercial zones only, allow for four continuous hours of business, and mandate a buffer of 500 feet between vendors. (Read the ordinances in full at santabarbaraca.gov/mobilevendors.)
Food-truck owners have fought these regulations since they were first publically discussed two years ago at a December 2015 meeting with city attorneys and planners. Their opposition has always been unified and unflinching: The operating hours were unrealistic since many trucks were open late, especially during the summer; the one-hour parking limit was ludicrous, since it takes time to set up and break down their operations; and, most critically, the downtown, Funk Zone, and Milpas Street corridors are where they find their customers. The ordinances, they declared, would put every one of them out of business.
City officials promised to seriously consider their concerns, to hold more hearings, and to make every effort not to endanger the food truckers’ livelihoods. Over the following 18 months, however, most of the city’s dozen or so mobile vendors have felt ignored. Only a few sporadic meetings were scheduled; even fewer concessions were offered. “The city had already made up its mind,” Gardner believed. “They don’t want food trucks here, but they can’t just say no, so they’re doing everything they can to make it impossible for us to succeed.” (Technically, Santa Barbara has a blanket ban on food trucks, but a 1993 Anaheim court case ruled such bans were unenforceable, hence the ordinance updates.)
Nikki Dailey, owner and operator of Heat Culinary, is also frustrated with the city: “We were never heard, never listened to.” It’s discouraging, she said, to have invested so much of her time and money into a business, only to have it threatened by onerous rules. Though Dailey is doing everything she can to stay in Santa Barbara — “I just love it so much,” she said — she’s enticed by an offer from Huntington Beach to host her truck down there. “I’m thinking about it,” she said.
By Paul Wellman
Chef Nikki Daile with Heat Culinary
Nimita Dhirajlal of Nimita’s Cuisine was so spooked by the pending laws that she scrapped her plan to upgrade her food trailer to a full-service truck and dropped out of the mobile game altogether. “That cost us a lot of money,” she said. Green and Tasty sold its truck because City Hall was so difficult to work with and was going to make the businesses financially infeasible, said owner Monica Elias Calles. Profit margins for mobile vendors, she explained, are razor thin to begin with, taking into account the unpredictability of the food-service industry and the thousands of dollars operators pay every year in business permits, health-code licenses, and kitchen rental fees. The looming restrictions on hours and locations would be the nail in the coffin, she said.
Georgia’s Smokehouse head chef Brian Parks, who served as an ambassador of sorts for the food truck fleet, pleaded with the city’s ordinance committee for more dialogue. Though he was promised an “inclusive process,” Parks, a former Canary Hotel executive chef, was ultimately discouraged by the lack of progress. He preemptively closed Georgia’s Smokehouse last summer with what his colleagues described as a heavy heart and serious exasperation.
Georgia’s Smokehouse owner Brian Parks would trade his apron for a suit to make his case before city officials, but he closed last summer after getting nowhere fast with them.