Market shift

Local food truck owners speak out about changes at Thursday Night Market; DCBA defends its stance

I started getting phone calls last week from food truck owners who’d just gotten word of changes afoot at the Thursday Night Market. Turns out a new policy had been adopted to minimize competition from “prepared-food vendors” (trucks and stands) on downtown brick-and-mortar restaurants. Some had been asked to change their menu; others to switch to a rotating schedule rather than weekly.

I sat down with a few food vendors to hear their concerns. Some were willing to speak on the record; others feared backlash by way of further market restrictions if they made their views public. I also spoke with representatives of the Downtown Chico Business Association, which runs the market, to get both sides of the issue.

“There’s always been tension between downtown restaurant operators who’ve got brick-and-mortar businesses and prepared-food vendors operating out of carts and the like,” explained Tom DiGiovanni, DCBA vice president. So, beginning last year, a group of downtown restaurateurs—15 at one time, whittled down to a committee about half that size—got together to discuss what could be done. It wasn’t reinventing the wheel, said Stephanie Yunker, community events and marketing director for DCBA.

“You’re not going to see 10 pizza vendors—we have Woodstock’s, and I’d like to see Celestino’s. But I’ve turned down outside pizza vendors in the past,” she said. “So, it’s not that we haven’t been paying attention to this at all. It’s just that the time came that we needed some rebalancing.”

They reached that consensus and notices went out to vendors—who’d begun applying for market spaces in January—last week, just two weeks before the market begins on April 6. For some, that didn’t give them much time to recalculate their summer schedules. Others, like Truckaroni owner Robbie Busick, take issue with the menu constraints.

“They asked me to not serve my mac and cheese with bacon,” he said. To not serve his bestselling menu item, however, just isn’t worth it. So, you won’t find him downtown on Thursday nights. “When people come up to my truck at a community event, they should be able to get what they want.”

The situation is particularly crushing for Slyderz Grill owner David Forster, whose application to set up at the market was denied altogether. He participated last year, but this year was told his menu is just too similar to those of existing downtown restaurants. “I’m going to have to bring my business to Sacramento,” he said. “Thursday Night Market was my biggest event.”

Jeremy Wolfe, owner of Mayhem! Gourmet Grilled Cheese, which was asked to shift to a rotating schedule, seemed to sum up the snafu: “My problem is with the process,” he said. “There was lack of communication, they were vague on their reasonings, and it came two weeks before the market starts.”

The DCBA had scheduled a meeting for after press time to discuss the issue with the food vendors. Tune in next week for updates.