Friday afternoon, behind Wild Planet in Ventura’s Downtown district, Chef Tim Kilcoyne served up sandwiches, burgers and crafty dishes for lunch from his food truck known as Scratch. Kilcoyne has been parked in the lot between the downtown parking garage and Wild Planet almost every Friday for more than a month.
For Kilcoyne, formerly the owner and executive chef at Sidecar Restaurant, Scratch is his foray into the world of free-wheeling food experimentation. But as soon as he made an appearance downtown, local institutions began to buzz.
“The Downtown Restaurant Association had an emergency meeting after our first week that we were parked here,” said Kilcoyne. “They decided that they’re going to try to ban [food] trucks from being in downtown Ventura.”
A shot across the bow came from local restaurateurs, a band of three — Jimmy’s Slice, Amigo’s Surf Cantina and Watermark with support from City Councilman Brian Brennan — who say that food trucks are unfair in an area saturated with restaurants but lacking customers.
Many cities have already enacted laws regulating where food trucks can park and serve. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors passed a regulation giving area restaurants a 75-foot buffer zone in which food trucks cannot park, while other cities, like Seattle and Chicago, require a 150-foot zone. If the City Council grants the restaurants’ wishes, an area roughly encompassing the entire Downtown district would be off-limits for food trucks.
Jim Wright, owner of Jimmy’s Slice, Sans Souci and Marie Shannon’s Confections — all on the same block and within half a block of where Scratch parks downtown — believes competition is healthy, but only by a certain set of rules.
“All of us guys spent $300 [thousand]-$500,000 to be on the street,” said Wright. “For somebody to come in on a Friday night to poach or take business away from the guys who are putting up money every week to be in this part of downtown, I don’t think that’s playing fair.”
Rent is a major cost of business in the Downtown area, where rates can easily top $10,000 a month for a small restaurant. Including taxes, licensing fees and other factors such as trash and upkeep, business can be difficult if competition on wheels parks nearby.
Food trucks are, in their own right, big business. According to the National Restaurant Association, food trucks pulled in $650 million in 2012 and are expected to continually increase through to 2017. Food trucks like Scratch are required to meet a heavy set of standards before being allowed out onto the streets — onto private property, that is — and only after paying for individual licenses, inspections and the cost of travel.
Only two food trucks are seen regularly downtown: Scratch and Tacos Aaron, which parks its operation on the corner of Chestnut and Thompson most every night. Oxnard hosts a regular food truck night monthly, and soon the Pacific View Mall will begin Ventura’s first regular food truck night.
“If you start letting one or two of these guys show up,” said Wright, “then pretty soon we’ll have 50 of them out here. Five or 10 of these things isn’t a good thing.”
Community Development Director Jeff Lambert looks at it from a different perspective. On the one hand, trying to improve the downtown area to attract new residents is a goal of the city, but pleasing the current tenants is also a priority.
“I think there’s room for both,” said Lambert. “Maybe we have to ultimately not prohibit them but talk about where we want them. Like on the Promenade, for instance, which might help to activate it in a positive way.”
A conceptual ban by the owners of the three primary restaurants filing the complaints would see no food trucks north of Thompson Boulevard and east of Ventura Avenue.
“I don’t think this has to be a conflict,” said Lambert. “I think we can figure out a way to preserve the businesses downtown and at the same time look for opportunities to bring in new businesses on wheels.”
On most Friday evenings, Kilcoyne is in Camarillo at Darryl’s Couch off Camarillo Springs Road. If Jon Reese had his way, this would be the only situation in which food trucks would operate.
“It’s a perfect example of where it’s needed,” said Reese, owner of Amigo’s Surf Cantina downtown. “There’s a bar and [Tim Kilcoyne] has a restaurant, there are no other restaurants in the area — perfect example of where a food truck should be utilized.”
Last Friday, Kilcoyne’s food truck catered a private event in Westlake Village, avoiding downtown altogether for the lunch crowd. If food trucks are banned from the area, Kilcoyne will simply move elsewhere.
“Honestly, it’s not the worst thing in the world that could happen,” said Kilcoyne, “but food trucks are part of a downtown. It’s the current thing that’s popular. Downtowns are built off of diversity and food trucks give you a lot of the diversity. I think that there’s room for everybody, and I don’t think that people should feel threatened”