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Food Truck Market Draws Complaints In Downtown San Diego

Photo by Tarryn Mento

This block of J Street is closed each Thursday afternoon until 10 p.m. for a food truck market.

Aired 5/9/13 on KPBS News.

They typically draw smiles and crowds, but food trucks in downtown San Diego are drawing complaints. Restaurant owners in the Gaslamp District say a mobile eatery market is moving in on their turf, but the City of San Diego says it's permitted to be there.

When Perri Spiller saw a sign announcing a weekly food truck market in downtown San Diego, she was furious.

Perri Spiller is the manager of Dick's Last Resort in downtown San Diego's Gaslamp District.

Christian Murcia is the owner of Curbside Bites, which organizes the Thursday food truck market in downtown San Diego.

"And was blown away with that happening knowing that there was unhappy businesses here, 'cause I also was speaking on behalf of other businesses on this area of the Gaslamp," said Spiller, manager for Dick's Last Resort in the historic Gaslamp District.

Spiller said she and other area eateries had already been complaining to the city's code enforcement about two food trucks that frequented the corner near her front door.

"I finally got a case number, felt like I was moving forward, and I came to work one Friday and an employee had asked me if I had seen what was on the corner outside our other door," she said.

That's when she saw a sign that applies to a one-block section of J Street: No parking, Special Event. Every Thursday. April to December. The city-approved special event would shut down the street -- and its parking spots -- each week from 2 to 10 p.m.

But because of its regular occurrence, people like Gary Smith question whether the food truck market should've even been approved in the first place.

"There's been a plethora of things coming out of Special Events that are not really special events," he said.

Smith is on the Downtown Parking Management Group. He argues that one-off events -- like a parade -- are a special event, but a weekly occurrence is not.

"The special event charge that the city charges is a one-off fee, whether it's one day or whether it's 52 weeks," he said.

That one-off fee is a $150 permit charge. Smith said he thinks it's a loophole that's being taken advantage of by the food truck market organizer, Curbside Bites. But Director of Special Events Carolyn Wormser said the one-off fee is part of the city's policy.

"If the event is the same week after week in terms of how it's laid out and what its components are, the city will issue a permit on an annual basis," she said.

Wormser said the permit applicant does have to pay the $150 fee each year. In this case, that'd be Christian Murcia, owner of Curbside Bites. He said the food truck market has the community's support, and said he's got a petition to prove it.

"In one week alone, we've gotten almost 600 signatures from the community, and they love it. And they really are supportive of it and think of it as a way as like, 'Yeah, why not? These are small business owners and they deserve to have a place here too,'" he said.

But Special Events Director Wormser acknowledged the historical debate over food trucks in San Diego, and said they're working on it.

"We have had a meeting with the council president and some members of the community as well as the restaurant association to discuss food trucks in general, as well as this event," she said.

Gary Smith is also working on it. On the agenda for today's Downtown Parking Management Group meeting: a letter he wrote regarding special permits for food trucks downtown.

And back in the Gaslamp District, Spiller said she did eventually get a response about her initial complaint of the food trucks coming around on the weekends. She was told that the city's code enforcement services don't regulate food trucks on public streets, only privately owned commercial property.

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | May 9, 2013 at 8:03 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Tell the complainers to come up with a better (competitive) product and the customers will be the winners, put a little effort into it.

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Avatar for user 'Hardcover'

Hardcover | May 9, 2013 at 9:16 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Dick's has been serving the same wings, beer and insults for decades. Them and about 50 Italian places. It's good to have a choice one day a week. What an ungrateful bunch.

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Avatar for user 'DIZZY'

DIZZY | May 9, 2013 at 9:51 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Do we really want downtown San Diego to resemble Downtown Los Angeles or even Tijuana? I don't think so. Then you will start seeing graffiti downtown as well. Do they even have business licenses because I know all those push carts you see selling ice cream tp kids font have a license? How safe is their products? Where did it come from? Maybe a country next store with NO quality assurance or FDA ?

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Avatar for user 'Hardcover'

Hardcover | May 9, 2013 at 10:06 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Dizzy: the food trucks all have business licenses and are inspected with letter grades by the County ( presumably all "A"s). I would like to hear more about the connection with gourmet food trucks and graffiti, it seems laughable on the surface. There has been graffiti Downtown since the 19th century.

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Avatar for user 'sbcabello'

sbcabello | May 9, 2013 at 10:48 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

The food trucks are a welcome addition to the downtown offerings. If I owned a restaurant down there, I'd be unhappy, too - but that, it appears is irrelevant to the city and to the 10 million of us who visit the Gaslamp each year. I hope that the food trucks stay, and that the free market gets to decide. If people don't like the food trucks, they'll go away. Also, how did Dick's Last resort not recognize that their protest would do nothing but put them in a bad light?

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Avatar for user 'DeLaRick'

DeLaRick | May 9, 2013 at 11:16 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago


You might want to visit downtown LA before you type your comments. The area has been undergoing revitalization over the last decade. The Staples/LA Live complex, by itself, is attracting many visitors and new businesses. The drive is only 120 miles. Check it out.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 9, 2013 at 11:38 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Thanks Hardcover. DIZ as you will soon discover, has an anatomical inversion problem.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | May 9, 2013 at 11:45 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm fine wit food trucks so long as they pay their fair share. $150 a year for a permit is NOT fair. It should be $150 per day per truck.

The brick and mortar businesses pay far more in property taxes and make long term investments in their buildings. They have a vested interest to stop graffiti, clean the sidewalks, and keep downtown well maintained. Food trucks do not.

Those are public streets and the public needs to be compensated when they are closed.

This is about fairness.

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | May 9, 2013 at 1:41 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

for me the main reasons to buy from a food truck is food in hand quickly ( on a lunch break) and no phony tipping.

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Avatar for user 'wundermichl'

wundermichl | May 9, 2013 at 10:42 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Food trucks are an intrinsic part of the "city" character of many places up and down the country. This includes SF, Boston, NYC... and looking at the posts here, SD people want it as well. I for one love food trucks because they are simple, yummy, affordable, and sites of human interaction. And by the way, why can we San Diegans not sit outside our restaurants more often? Where is the street scene? Absolutely ridiculous.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | May 10, 2013 at 10:24 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

CD, if it about fairness, would you change the fee for special event permits to $150 per participant per day? Don't you think that might diminish the number of special events held down town? Isn't this the same thing that farmers markets are doing?

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